Cloud computing: what is it and how does it work?
To most of us, “cloud computing” is a highly bewildering topic, because in order to know what it is, you have to be able to understand what the “cloud computing” is, and how something can be stored digitally and remotely. “Where are they?” you might ask yourself of files you’re storing online. Where are they being “held” or “kept”?
To answer this question and to develop a working framework of what the “cloud computing” is, first we have to understand what it is not. The cloud does not refer to data being stored locally (on a hard drive, or an LAN server, which is basically a computer that takes requests from other computers that are all locally connected to one another). That data is being stored via software or hardware right in your home or office.
Rather, the “cloud computing” refers simply to storing data remotely, using a third party’s networks and servers, instead of using your own machinery in your home/office, which of course cuts down on infrastructure and maintenance costs. For a common example, an online file hosting site would be an example of “cloud computing,” because it allows its clients to use its services to upload, store, and access data without having to store in on their own computer or network.
If the concept is still confusing, let’s pretend that “data” is a physical item instead. If you buy a piece of furniture, you can store it in your home. But, if you don’t have room for the furniture, you might opt to put it in a storage unit instead — thus, storing it remotely, but still owning it and having access to it. This is what cloud computing services do. They contract out their own “units” (in this case, their own servers and hardware) for their customers to store data on. For a price!
Now that we know what cloud computing is, what are some of its more in-depth functions? We already mentioned file hosting, which is a common service for personal use because these users just want to be able to access a few select files from any given computer; the file hosting site functions almost as a virtual USB drive. You’ve most likely engaged in cloud computing before even if you don’t realize it. Have you ever used an online email platform and saved an email draft without sending it? If so, since you’re “storing” that email remotely and could access it from anywhere in the world, not only are you using cloud computing technology, you’re also using something that is usually associated with business and professional use: “Software as a Service,” or SaaS.
At the risk of overusing palindromes here, “SaaS” is a type of B2B, or business-to-business, service. This just means that one business (here, a business that provides cloud computing capabilities) sells its services to another business, instead of to individual customers. A company that sells “Software as a Service” not only sells remote storage capacity, but sells a software program that can only be accessed online. Often, it’s big businesses that are the end users of “Software as a Service.”
These businesses use applications like customer relationship management (CRM) software that is provided to them by cloud computing — meaning, they are accessed online and saved data is stored online. This makes it much easier for big businesses to have their departments, in different cities or even different countries, collaborate and share files without being tied down by local network restrictions. The net is also called the “World Wide Web” for a reason, after all!
Beyond that, the possibilities that cloud computing/SaaS companies provide to businesses are endless, but also more complex beyond the scope of this article. SaaS for end user businesses can come in the form of financial, marketing, web development, or e-commerce software. SaaS can even allow these users to create their own apps tailored to their own specific business needs.
At that point, the hierarchy gets a little crazy: a company providing cloud computing services to another company so that the latter company can design software that it may very well use to provide its own services to a third company! However, at its core, the idea of cloud computing is quite simple: making data as accessible as possible, globally, quickly, and efficiently.