Sustainable Information Technology

What is the Cloud?

Back in the day, I worked as a network technician for one of Britain’s biggest companies. Whenever a new system came along, if the network architects had done their jobs properly, we would get a system diagram that explained how the network linked up people and computers and software. The diagrams looked something like this:

Pre-Internet Network Diagram

Pre-Internet Network Diagram

The Internet and the Cloud – Who Knew?

Then one day I woke up and the internet had happened. And suddenly I was presented with a network diagram that looked more like this:

Cloud Internet Diagram

Cloud Internet Diagram

At this point I went along to the network architect and had a brief conversation along these lines:

Me: What’s this cloud thing on the diagram?

Her: The internet.

Me: Why?

Her: So we can connect everything up more easily. The internet has lots of special computers like routers and switches that direct the communications between our computers and software and the people who use them.

Me: Is there anything else in the cloud?

Her: Not much. Yet.

Me: I think I’ll write a smog* about this. After I’ve listened to Tears for Fears on my room-sized ghetto blaster.
*Blogs didn’t exist then. I was predicting what they would be called once they were invented. I think you’ll find I was 50% right.

Today’s Cloud

So the origins of what we call the cloud today are in this diagramming technique. Back then, the cloud simply represented the internet. But the cloud and the way we use it have continued to develop over time.

The most obvious thing in the cloud is the web itself. In effect you are using a cloud service now as you read this smog blog. The words you are reading are encoded on a web page that sits on a web server (a computer dedicated to ‘serving’ web pages) which is connected to the internet. Nowadays we might say the web server sits in the cloud.

Just to complete the picture, you navigate your way through the cloud using a special set of communication protocols to convert the web page address (the string of characters in the address bar beginning with ‘www’ ) into an address that computers can understand.

So far so good.

But today, when people talk about the cloud, they are really talking about specific characteristics of the internet. A good marketing word was needed to quickly and easily summarise these characteristics, and ‘cloud’ is a pretty good marketing word.

The cloud – as the term is now being used – has come to mean a bunch of different things, all based upon the idea of running computers and / or their software on the internet (in the cloud) rather than on local PCs or servers or mainframe (very large) computers. Depending on who you are (a company, a private citizen) and what you are trying to achieve, the implications of the cloud and how you use it are far-reaching.

How companies use the cloud

Let’s imagine Acme Corporation, which is using cloud computing; and Zenith Corporation, which provides cloud computing services to Acme and other companies.

  • Acme workers access data, files and software programs from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection. Not just on PCs, but on tablets and smartphones.
  • Acme’s data is stored on servers which are owned by Zenith and which sit in Zenith’s huge Data Centre.
  • The costs of purchasing and setting up storage devices is high and sometimes unpredictable. By having Zenith do this for them, Acme can lower their costs (they don’t need to own the servers or the skills needed to design and operate them). Because Zenith have well defined ‘price plans’ for their services, Acme can now also predict their costs more accurately.
  • Acme’s costs of developing or buying in software to run on its own computers are even higher. Zenith also has a SaaS proposition which Acme can use. SaaS is Software as a Service, which means that Acme can access software as and when it needs it. Again, Acme’s costs are potentially much lower and can be predicted more accurately. Two very well known examples of SaaS are Salesforce CRM and Google Apps.
  • The boss of Acme (which sells beds for cats) feels that when it comes to IT, the tail is wagging the dog. Too much time, effort and money are being put into IT, and not enough on selling cat beds. Zenith are the experts (thinks the Acme boss), so we’ll let them provide us with all of that clever IT stuff while we get down to the real business of pussy cat beds (this at least is the argument, though for many companies a complete outsource of IT of this type is an ambition rather than a reality).

How individuals use the cloud

Let’s take me as an example.

  • I use Google Drive and Dropbox to store files so that I can free up space on my laptop
  • Amazon’s Cloud Drive is where I store pictures and music
  • On the business / personal borderline, Mailchimp is where I go to send out formatted emails to lists of contacts – this is pure SaaS
The list of cloud apps is endless. I don’t use an iPhone, but if I did there would be many thousands of free and paid-for apps to access, and these are all in the “iCloud”.

Green IT and the Cloud

It is a green umbrella and it is under a cloudThe claim is that cloud computing is ‘green’. Green IT is all about using less energy (and cleaner sources of energy).

To an extent, cloud computing does this by being more efficient at storing data and programmes and by ensuring that computer capacity is just right (so that idle servers aren’t sitting around drawing electricity from the grid. One of the techniques for achieving this is virtualisation).

There is also the possibility that because of the scale of shared cloud computing services, less resources and energy are used. In other words, it is more environmentally friendly to have ten companies’ servers and software services in a single data centre than it is for each of those ten companies to have their own smaller data centres, servers, etc. This seems like good sense.

However, DCs use huge amounts of power, and data centre efficiency is a whole other other kettle of fish. Try what is PUE? for more on that subject.