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The cloud in 60 seconds (or thereabouts)

Having been subjected to the hype around Cloud technology for some time now, I’d imagine that many business owners are confused about what the Cloud actually is and how it might help them run their business.

To understand what the Cloud is let’s go back in time to understand where it came from.

Here’s my 60 second précis on the history of computing since 1970

The history of computing since 1970

Reading from left to right we can see that the 1970’s was the era of the mainframe, the 1980’s saw the emergence of personal computing, and the 1990’s welcomed client server computing and the introduction of the local area network (LAN). During which time we saw a massive adoption by businesses as they computerised some of their traditionally manual business processes.

Like all good things, businesses wanted more, they wanted more users connected to the network, and they wanted multiple sites connected to the network. However, scale of this nature resulted in higher costs, more in house IT people were required to keep the servers running reliably and efficiently, it was increasingly costly and time consuming to keep all the software up to date on all of the PC’s, and a new breed of network engineers were needed to setup wide area networks (WAN) and maintain high speed connections between sites in order to deliver acceptable performance.

Virtualisation and the Internet

Then some bright spark came up with the concept of virtualisation, whereby all the businesses software could be installed on a central server, instead of the local PC’s, and users simply log into the server to run their software from any business location.

Around the same time, circa the years, businesses also started to interact with the Internet, many hosting their own web sites and starting to trade on line. Once again, new skills were required to deliver this, and because businesses were reaching out beyond their own bricks and mortar, a brand new set of issues around security arose, enter to the world of firewall and security technology.

So, great opportunities for businesses, but increasingly costly to do it right, and at the end of the day most businesses aren’t interested in spending on IT infrastructure per say, they’re interested in making money.

Managed hosting

This time help is at hand in the shape of Managed Hosting providers such as Rackspace who specialise and excel in running highly resilient servers and IT infrastructure. So, we start to see the provisioning and operation of servers transfer from in house ownership to that of the Managed Hosting provider. Virtualisation and web presence is fully supported by the Managed Hosting provider and security is properly taken care of.

However, as businesses switch from in house to Managed Hosting, they need to create and pay for enough capacity with the managed hosting company to cater for their peak computing needs. Not a problem for businesses that have a steady and consistent need for computing power. However, for businesses that have occasional high computing demands around seasonal sales periods or heavy month end processing, it means paying for managed hosting servers that are mostly underutilised for long periods of time.

Cloud hosting

Not ideal by any means, but don’t worry, with a fanfare of trumpets, we’re saved again… enter the concept of Cloud Hosting as pioneered by the likes of Amazon Web Services. Unlike Managed Hosting, Cloud Hosting has no initial set up costs to provision servers and you only pay for the processing power that you use. The layman’s definition being, “think of Cloud Hosting like electricity, turn it on when you need it and turn it off when you don’t,” and so the phrase “Utility Computing” is reborn… I say reborn as John McCarthy had this vision way back in 1961.

More recently Cloud Hosting has further evolved into Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure being a good example, whereby a number of preinstalled services are available alongside Cloud Hosting.

Cloud is…

So there you have it, cutting through all the hype, quite simply the Cloud is Cloud Hosting and Cloud Platform right?

Unfortunately not… enter stage right the marketing machines of some very clever Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors. Somewhat different to virtualisation, SaaS is software that has been specifically written to run in a web browser and allows many tens (hundreds) of thousands of users all to share the same application and database. It’s actually a wee bit more complex than that, but that’ll do to make this point… Most of the SaaS applications in the world today aren’t running on Cloud Hosting or Cloud Platform, they’re actually running on Managed Hosting. In what can only be seen as a brilliant piece of marketing the technical definition of the Cloud has been changed to incorporate Managed Hosting.

But this leads to confusion as no longer is the Cloud a simple to understand hosting concept. And more confusion is to follow as some SaaS vendors set about alienating other software vendors who don’t provide an identical service to themselves, even though technically speaking they aren’t actually running on the Cloud themselves!

So there you have it again, the Cloud is now Cloud Hosting, Cloud Platform and some, but not all, SaaS applications running on Managed Hosting right?

Not quite… even more confusion follows as a raft of hardware vendors try to jump on the Cloud bandwagon, offering on-premise servers with built in connectivity to the internet as a “Cloud in a Box.” I’m sorry, but even using my wildest imagination this doesn’t tick the Cloud box for me.

Oh, and did I mention public and private Clouds and security and service level agreements… no, maybe next time?


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