What is cloud computing?

What is cloud computing?

By Special Guest
Chase Higbee
  |  March 12, 2021



Cloud computing involves the use of compute, storage, and network infrastructure placed at different geographical locations throughout the world, interconnected with high-speed network fabric. Essentially, it is a global-scale farm of secured computing resources that can be made publicly available over the internet by authorized users. 

There are many different opinions of what exactly cloud computing is; however, we describe cloud computing as the hosting and provisioning of critical IT business services to an extensive client-base with connectivity over a secured public or private internet connection. 

In recent years, cloud computing has become a core business utility, much like gas, electricity, and water utilities. Cloud computing is a collection of products that are directly consumed by end-users, whether those users are part of a business organization or are individuals. These users have the option to pick and choose what services to consume.

The cloud computing services on offer vary between each of the cloud providers. The majority of providers offer services based upon the infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), software-as-a-service (SaaS (News - Alert)), and platform-as-a-service (PaaS) ideologies. Each cloud provider will offer an on-demand, secure, reliable, and scalable service that is provided at the specific pricing strategy. 

IaaS is often described as a shared or dedicated virtual machine hosting service, usually comprising of flexible storage options such as persistent local, SSD, or standard disk connectivity. Practically any software product that is hosted in the cloud, such as Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox, or Oracle’s (News - Alert) shared database services, can be offered under a SaaS model.

PaaS is like SaaS, but this service allows you to run your own code and persistent data on a bespoke hosting platform. Services like Google (News - Alert) App Engine (GAE), Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), and AWS Lambda functions are popular “serverless” examples of PaaS.

Cloud Services

Cloud services offer a plethora of distinctive advantages for any organization that requires information systems as a consumable business service. Cloud services can apply to almost all industries throughout the world, no matter their size or scale. 

The scope of services on offer is massive. Virtual Machines (VMs) are the backbone of a cloud hyper-converged infrastructure. A VM can be almost any conceivable computing asset, such as a containerized Docker application, a Windows/Linux server, or a complex load-balanced auto-sizing application.

The virtual machines and attached virtual networking can interact directly with other existing solutions offered by the cloud service provider. Most commonly, database platforms such as MySQL shared virtual private networks (VPN), frontend, or backend applications. It can also provide a cloud connection to an existing on-premises setup, or even to another cloud provider.

Cloud services also provide the opportunity to integrate systems directly with the managed services that pre-exist within a cloud provider-hosted service. In addition to being solely responsible for the infrastructure uptime, performance, and system updates, the provider can manage your server estate according to contractually agreed to key performance indicators.

This approach automatically benefits the consumers with core technology solutions that might include products such as a managed backup service, a managed antivirus security platform, network edge protection, and disaster recovery capabilities.

Disaster recovery (DR) capabilities are a very important consideration for modern organizations, as the guaranteed availability of a website or computing service is often essential to the continued operation of a business. Not all major cloud providers offer any type of disaster recovery service by default; instead, customers are expected to integrate disaster recovery into the architected technical solution before committing to a cloud provider. 

We believe that this approach can have a detrimental impact on customers. For example, if the provider’s technical engineering team needs to perform maintenance or upgrades on a virtual server host (or hypervisor) and your business-critical application resides on this host, interruptions might occur. 

The major cloud providers will simply enforce the maintenance by powering off the host. Notifications should be sent in advance via text or email from the cloud provider to allow planning. However, unexpected outages are a real possibility and are quite common in this scenario.

Very few cloud providers will migrate your servers automatically in the event of maintenance or host failure. Azure and AWS are two of the worst offenders. Azure will pause your VM for the duration of the scheduled downtime, and AWS will simply switch off your server if they need to reboot the physical host. 

So unless you choose a cloud provider that has the capability to automatically migrate your services, we recommend that you perform significant due diligence in advance regarding how your application handles downtime and interruptions. This becomes increasingly important when you are developing a healthcare application relying on it.

The cloud provider’s site reliability engineers are responsible for ensuring that core infrastructure services are functional to agreed service levels. More importantly, the provider will have the difficult task of upgrading core hardware such as the server estate, networking, or storage arrays when the systems reach end-of-life. Outsourcing this responsibility is a great way to make significant cost savings, and helps ensure you are running on the latest hardware.

Cloud Costs

Building, managing, and maintaining an internal IT department can prove to be a very expensive process. As well as paying everybody’s wages, there is significant financial outlay required to purchase any hardware, software, and associated licenses, all of which together can prove to be an expensive exercise. You also need to have skilled IT personnel who have the correct training and experience to administrate the infrastructure in its entirety.

Furthermore, most software solutions are now licensed per CPU socket (sometimes per core) which can inflate the prices substantially, particularly in virtual hypervisors like VMWare, or database solutions like Oracle. 

Servers, storage arrays, and network equipment carry a premium price tag (News - Alert), replacement parts are expensive, and occasionally you must purchase additional licenses to unlock hardware features. Even if the computing infrastructure is leased, most servers come with renewal conditions which can increase the prices again within 1 to 3 years on contact, and you may also have to purchase additional hardware agreements to mitigate against component failures and unexpected technical issues.

In most situations, cloud computing services can prove to be much a cheaper option than an on-premises solution. Cloud computing is tendered on a pay-as-you-go model which enables users to only pay for the resources which they consume. A free tier or trial period is frequently available at the biggest cloud providers; this allows the end-user to “try before you buy” to get a better understanding of performance.

Organizations that are pursuing a “cloud-first” strategy starting from a situation where they are heavily invested in an on-premises solution may be faced with short-term increases in costs as business services are migrated away from on-premise solutions and into a cloud provider. During the first year of migration, it is not uncommon that organizations will be charged for cloud services consumption and the pre-existing on-premises services concurrently. 

This co-running of IT services may cause a temporary price hike if the decommissioning process of the existing infrastructure takes longer than expected. This can result in the end-user being charged twice for existing computing services that haven’t been fully transitioned to the cloud. This alone is a compelling reason to outsource to a dedicated cloud provider that can rapidly cut migration times and ease this financial burden.

Thankfully, these transition pains are short-lived, and the huge benefits cloud computing offers can justify this temporary setback. The simplicity of cloud-native pricing models, service costs, and continued usage discounts make the cloud an attractive place to host infrastructure services and business applications for individuals, business start-ups, or large-scale enterprise organizations.

Also, when choosing to outsource to a partner, any system upgrade costs of the cloud computing server estate are the sole responsibility of the partner. Infrastructure upgrades are extremely expensive, but the provider will be contracted not only to cover all that cost but also to provide the expertise to seamlessly upgrade the solution in the background without impacting production services.

Reliability of the cloud

Another major benefit of cloud computing is the reliability of the infrastructure. Cloud data centers are constructed to the highest standards to protect servers and cooling systems from failure. Premium hardware is used and is always fault-tolerant (FT), meaning that hardware failures do not bring down the entire system. Data centers are also interconnected using high-speed, redundant networks, and data can be replicated between multiple sites at very low latency to offer the highest levels of performance and data integrity.

Securing the cloud

Securing cloud services is one of the most important aspects of cloud computing. As cloud services can be directly exposed to the internet, securing and hardening access controls is of paramount importance. Rigorous Identify and Access Management (IAM) controls must be implemented. There are countless examples of news reports regarding data breaches caused by misconfigured servers and cloud services such as storage buckets.

Collaborating with a reliable cloud provider with decades of experience can mitigate this risk. Cloud security is essential if you have any compliance requirements, such as ISO standards or HIPAA compliance. A partner can make sense of the huge number of security services that cloud providers offer.

Infrastructure security is essential; this includes encryption for data integrity, as well as network security services such as SSL secured load balancing, virtual private cloud, data encryption in transit, and API transport layer security. Securing your network cloud endpoints is a strict requirement too, this can include web optimization, DDoS protection, data security, and strict controls over IAM.

You may also wish to implement additional security products such as an Intrusion (News - Alert) Protection Service (IPS). An IPS is placed at strategic points within the cloud network and works with the firewall by inspecting packets that the firewall has already accepted as legitimate. Another IPS resides directly on the network, protecting against local vulnerabilities at a hardware layer. 

In summary, “What is Cloud Computing” is a significantly vast topic. Cloud technology is still relatively new and the rate of change and volume of new services being added is staggering. The industry is booming and confidence in cloud providers' security credentials is extremely high. There will come a day when Cloud Computing is the defacto solution for IT technical services.