What Is Cloud Computing? A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide
Updated · May 08, 2022
Types of Cloud Computing
Look, I get it.
Small businesses have it rough.
With fewer staff and less capital, they must compete with big guys who have more resources and staff.
But here’s the deal: Today, they can acquire this competitive edge with greater ease than ever before, all thanks to cloud computing.
It allows entrepreneurs to leverage technology without investing money upfront.
Therefore, it is no surprise nearly eight out of every 10 businesses are using the cloud and over 41% of small organizations already adopted it, too.
And so should you.
It provides the ammunition you need to take on the competition.
Read on to know more about cloud computing and how it can help you.
What Is Cloud Computing?
Here, we’ll kick things off with the help of an analogy.
Imagine it’s Sunday and you and your friends want to have some pizzas. You bake awesome pizzas. But, heck, it’s the weekend, and cooking is the last thing that you want to do. Plus, the Yankees (your team) are playing the Red Sox in half an hour.
One option is to dash to the local store, buy frozen pizzas, and bake them at home.
Another option is to order some pizzas from the nearest joint.
The third option is to hit the local bar, where they serve sizzling hot pizzas with chilled beer.
All these options have one thing in common: They allow you to leverage the services of others. Well, that’s cloud computing for you!
OK, I get that. But where are the clouds?
Sorry to disappoint you. There are no clouds here, much like the lack of alcohol in ginger ale.
“Cloud” is a metaphor for the internet. A marketing phrase that has little actual informative value but sounds catchy enough to sell well.
We can define cloud computing as a technology that allows you to leverage someone else’s computing services over the internet.
Think Dropbox. That’s cloud computing. You’re using their servers to store your files.
Apple iCloud, Gmail, and OneDrive are some other everyday examples of cloud computing.
Five Key Characteristics of Cloud Computing
Now, let’s come to the all-important question:
How can you tell if something is a cloud?
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, cloud computing has five defining features.
1. On-Demand Self-Service
Cloud computing provides resources when you want them. This is achieved through self-service and automation.
In other words, you can scale up or scale down computing resources yourself, without having to interact with your provider’s staff.
Also, in cloud computing, you pay for what you use.
2. Broad Network Access
You can access cloud services only through a network—which in most cases is the internet.
This means you can access resources from anywhere and on any device, provided you can go online.
3. Resource Pooling
For many businesses, cloud computing is up to 40 times more cost-effective than running an in-house IT system.
Resource pooling is one of the main reasons for this.
Multiple users use the pooled resources of the provider. As a result, the latter is able to provide services at affordable prices.
Another advantage of this multi-tenant model is that it allows the provider to assign and reassign computing power, software, and resources to customers as per their needs.
4. Rapid Elasticity
Everybody in the cloud can add or decreases resources at any time, without affecting others.
For instance, during peak traffic, the cloud can scale up rapidly—and, in some cases, even automatically—to accommodate new requests.
When the traffic normalizes, it can scale down just as swiftly.
5. Measured Service
The provider measures resources (such as network bandwidth, storage space, CPU, and others) to ensure customers never run out of them.
This also helps make sure each customer pays for what they use, not more or less.
Now let’s move on to:
How Cloud Computing Works
The cloud computing architecture is comprised of the following three components:
- Frontend – This refers to the device (like a laptop, a desktop, or a mobile device) and application used by a client to access data stored in the cloud.
- Backend – This is the primary component of cloud computing and refers to the complete computer infrastructure of the cloud provider. It includes different kinds of servers, storage devices, operating systems, and applications that together create the cloud computing environment. Often, there’s also a dedicated server (or several) for every application. Finally, there are monitoring systems that regulate traffic, manage computational resources, detect security issues, and esnure everything runs smoothly.
- Network – The third component of the infrastructure allows the front-end and backend to connect with each other via the internet.
When these three components work in harmony, the cloud provider can smoothly deliver computing services to multiple clients using different cloud service models.
Cloud Computing Service Models
There are three main cloud service models. All three serve different purposes and ultimately make your life easier.
Before we discuss each one in detail, let’s use the pizza analogy to get a general understanding.
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is like your frozen pizza – You leverage the services of others to reduce your workload. Someone else prepares the pizza but you bake it, get the drinks, and do the dishes.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS) is like your home-delivered pizza – You use the services of others more than in the case of IaaS. Someone else bakes and delivers the pizza to your door. However, you must still figure out the drinks and wash the dishes.
- Software as a Service (SaaS) is like dining out at your local bar – You leverage the services of others all the way. Someone brings you pizza and drinks, and takes care of the dishes, too!
Now, let’s find out what each service model means in technical terms.
IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS – What’s the Difference?
Hint: It’s far greater than a single letter.
Software as Service (SaaS)
When you use a SaaS service, you don’t have to set up anything on your computer or server.
All you need is a login ID and a password. Also, you pay for what you use.
Some common examples of SaaS services are email services (Gmail and Yahoo! mail), office tools (Google Docs and Office 365), cloud storage services (Dropbox and OneDrive), event management software (Trello and Cvent), and hosted website builders like Shopify and BigCommerce.
Infrastructure as Service (IaaS)
It offers you a fully functioning (basic or advanced) computing infrastructure—networking resources, servers, and storage.
So, in a way, IaaS is like your personal virtual data center.
Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, and Compute Engine are some of the most popular IaaS providers.
When using IaaS, you are free to install any operating systems and tools you need on the provided infrastructure.
While you manage the operating system, hosted applications, and tools, the provider maintains the servers, storage, networking resources, and data center.
You can use IaaS for many purposes, from building virtual data centers and website hosting, to data mining and analysis.
Platform as Service (PaaS)
PaaS provides you with a platform for developing, testing, managing, and deploying applications.
The vendor manages everything in the cloud infrastructure (i.e., the operating system, development and management tools, networking resources, servers, storage devices, and the data center as a whole).
You, on the other hand, need to only look after the applications you host. Examples of PaaS include Google App Engine and Heroku.
Now, let’s find out about different types of cloud delivery models.
Types of Cloud Computing
There are three main types of clouds—private, public, and hybrid.
Let’s understand each one with the help of another analogy
Let’s say you share an apartment with a friend, and both of you own a car.
While yours is a fuel-efficient car, hers is an SUV.
Usually, you drive your car, but sometimes—like when you need to buy groceries—you take the SUV.
Now, imagine another friend moves in with you two, but she doesn’t own a vehicle.
However, most of the times, you three get by just fine with just two cars.
This is similar to private cloud.
Just as you own the vehicles, the company owns everything in the cloud. The employees share the resources, much like you three share the two cars among yourselves and you enjoy full control over your stuff.
Maybe you and your friends can’t afford a car. Or maybe you all work from home and don’t feel the need for one.
You simply use the subway when you have to go somewhere.
Of course, the subway schedule restricts your movements, but, as a tradeoff, you pay on a per-use basis.
This is exactly how it works.
You own neither hardware nor software. You use the service only when you need it and pay for what you use.
As you can see, a public cloud is more cost-effective than a private one. However, the disadvantage is that in the former you have little control over data and infrastructure.
Your car is big enough for most everyday needs. However, it won’t do for a long road trip. So, you rent a trailer and hook it up.
This is exactly how hybrid cloud works.
Much of the time you only use your own resources but during peak loads, you hire someone else’s resources.
A hybrid cloud allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds—the security of a private cloud and the scalability of a public cloud.
Now, you might be thinking:
“Alright, I know the answer to the question what is cloud computing? I also know how it works. But why should I move to the cloud? Are its benefits so great, really?”
Well, let’s find out…
Why Use the Cloud?
Cloud computing offers many benefits, such as:
Moving to the cloud is less costly than setting up an on-site server.
Also, in the case of the cloud, you don’t have to spend money on costly hardware upgrades. That’s your vendor’s headache. Your vendor will upgrade hardware whenever it’s needed.
Lastly, you don’t need to hire an IT team to maintain your IT infrastructure. That’s more savings in your pocket.
This is one of the most important cloud computing benefits. You can quickly scale up or down with just a few clicks.
This sort of agility can give you a big advantage over competitors who still rely on local servers, as scaling them up is anything but swift and cheap.
Less downtime, in turn, boosts your productivity and brand image. After all, no one likes doing business with a company whose site and applications are frequently down.
Cloud-based services are available the instant you pay for them. In contrast, when using a local server setup, you first have to install and configure hardware before you can start using a service.
If data security is your number one priority, consider migrating to the cloud, as it’s safer.
All cloud storage providers implement baseline data security control measures like access control, encryption, and authentication. Many even supplement baseline measures with advanced security controls to safeguard the cloud applications, software, and database.
Cloud computing makes it easier to work on-the-go.
Employees can access corporate data using smartphones and other mobile devices at any time and from anywhere—as long as they’re connected to the internet.
Cloud Computing Security Challenges & Solutions
Cloud computing offers many benefits. For instance, you can access company data from anywhere and add or decommission resources with a few clicks.
However, when you move to the cloud, you relinquish some of the data and network security controls to another party.
If you don’t choose your provider wisely, your data can fall into the wrong hands, which is not good.
That’s why knowing the answers to the questions “what is cloud computing?” and “what are its advantages?” isn’t enough. You must also be aware of key cloud security challenges and their solutions.
Challenge 1 – Data Breaches
The last thing you want after moving to the cloud is to inadvertently handle unauthorized access to third parties. With the growing amount of data breaches, that’s a serious concern.
This is where data encryption comes into the picture.
It scrambles your data in such a way that only those with the decryption key can read it.
In other words, even if it is lost or stolen, others can’t read and benefit from it, unless they have the decryption key.
Most cloud providers offer the following two types of encryption services:
- End-to-end encryption – When you opt for this, all your data is encrypted before it’s migrated to the cloud.
- Selective encryption – In this case, only sensitive data is encrypted.
Before embracing cloud technology, make sure your provider offers the encryption service that you need to keep your data safe.
Challenge 2 – DDoS Attacks
A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is used by cyber criminals to make a network, application, or website unavailable by bombarding it with too much traffic.
A DDoS attack, if successful, can bring your site down for many hours or even days—affecting your profits and brand image.
DDoS trends and statistics categorically show the devastating effect of such attacks.
Therefore, make sure your cloud provider has a robust DDoS protection in place.
Challenge 3 – Insecure Access Points
The biggest benefit of the cloud is that it allows you to access data from anywhere, using any device.
However, what if the APIs users interact with are insecure? Hackers can identify these vulnerabilities and use them to their advantage.
This is where a Web Application Firewall proves immensely useful. It examines HTTP requests to a site and filters out any illegitimate traffic.
Cloud Computing Is Confusing – Let's Disperse the Fog
In shared hosting, your site shares a physical server with other sites. Each site gets fixed bandwidth and shares computing resources like disk space and RAM with others.
On the other hand, in cloud hosting, your site files are saved on a network of servers, which communicate with each other using a secure and encrypted connection.
Here are the key differences between them:
- Cloud hosting is more reliable than shared hosting – In shared hosting, all your files are located on a single server. If it develops a problem, your site will go down as well. However, in cloud hosting, your site is hosted on multiple server resources. If one server develops a glitch, another will take its role, keeping your site up and running.
- Cloud hosting is easily scalable – Multiple servers are involved in the case of cloud hosting. Even if lots of people visit your site at once, it will continue to run smoothly. This is because the cloud will rope in more servers to manage the extra workload. In contrast, in the case of shared hosting, much of the remaining—if not all—resources are already allotted to others. So, there’s not much left to help during peak load times.
- Cloud hosting is safer – If one site gets hacked in shared hosting, others could lose precious data, too. The cloud infrastructure, on the other hand, is more secure.
- Cloud hosting is typically faster –Multiple servers are deployed in cloud hosting. That’s why it usually outperforms shared hosting.
- Cloud hosting works on the pay-as-you-go model – In cloud hosting, you pay for what you use. However, in shared hosting, you pay a fixed fee every month.
- Shared hosting is cheaper – Cloud hosting has many advantages over shared hosting. Bearing that in mind, the fact that it is more expensive should come as no surprise. While some shared hosting plans cost only a few dollars per month, reliable cloud hosting plans have a price tag of $15 to $20 a month.
What Is Mobile Cloud Computing?
The developers use cloud computing to build, power, and host mobile applications, which the end-users accesses using a mobile web browser.
Many mobile apps need lots of computing power and storage space. If they are stored and run natively (i.e., using your mobile phone’s operating system and RAM), they may not run smoothly.
Worse, they may drain your smartphone’s battery rather quickly.
However, with MCC, mobile apps are no longer bound by the mobile operating system or RAM. They are hosted and processed in the cloud—and accessed via a mobile browser or a thin native client.
As a result, they run smoothly, without affecting your phone’s performance or battery life. Low-end mobile phone users can also enjoy these apps—as long as their phones are browser-enabled.
How Does Cloud Computing Help with Big Data?
Big data is loosely defined as data that’s so large and complex that it can’t be processed using conventional data processing systems.
However, big data doesn’t just refer to data that has gotten big in size.
It is also used to refer to new tools and technologies used for capturing, storing, organizing, and processing data.
Storing and processing big data is anything but easy. You need massive servers, which are costly to build and maintain.
This is where the cloud can make a world of difference.
You can leverage the power of cloud computing to compile big data, analyze it, make predictions, and act on them.
What Are the Most Important KPIs for Cloud Computing?
After migrating to the cloud, it is a good idea to track the following key metrics. This will give you a fair idea about the value cloud computing is bringing to your business.
- Service/System Availability – This refers to the amount of time a service or system is available, usually expressed in percentages. Needless to say, the higher the uptime, the better it is for your business.
- Reliability – It is typically expressed in terms of mean time to failure (MTTF) or mean time to repair (MTTR). MTTF refers to the amount of time a device is likely to last—while MTTR denotes the amount of time needed to fix a failed device. A higher MTTF and a lower MTTF augurs well for your business.
- Response Time – This metric shows the overall efficiency of the cloud. The lower the response time, the better.
- Incident Resolution – This metric monitors the amount of time the provider takes to resolve incidents. Long response times indicate poor service.
- Scalability – It tells the ability of the cloud to process a large number of requests together. If you expect sudden spikes in demand, you need the cloud to be sufficiently scalable.
Traditional Web Hosting vs Cloud Hosting Service
Traditional web hosting is primarily of two types: shared and dedicated (or VPS) hosting.
In shared hosting, you pay the vendor for using a specific amount of space on a server and share resources with others.
In dedicated hosting, you pay the vendor for using one or more servers. All the computing power of the rented-out server(s) is for you only.
In cloud hosting, on the other hand, you pay for what you use. Your site is hosted on a network of interconnected servers.
This arrangement makes it easier to scale up and down when you have to. It is also more secure and reliable. If one server goes down, another will pitch in for it.
What Is Serverless Computing?
First things first—serverless computing is a sort of a misnomer. The term doesn’t mean there are no servers. It just implies that someone else deals with them. We prefer to use the term managed hosting here on our site and have dedicated an entire article on the topic of quality managed cloud services. The opposite is unmanaged hosting, which hands all the server administration to the user, and quite a few cloud providers have such packages.
In serverless computing, you worry neither about the servers nor about other things needed to run applications on them like patching, storing, or load balancing.
The cloud provider takes care of all these things—while you’re free to focus on the core product.
Think about serverless computing as an invitation to a “bring your own drink” party.
The only thing you must bring is your beverage (i.e., application). The host takes care of the food, music, and the clean-up.
Some of the key benefits of serverless computing are as follows:
- It reduces the cost of developing applications, since you don’t spend money managing the server and pay only for the server space that you use.
- Serverless applications are inherently scalable. The vendor will add new servers when the demand goes up and withdraw them when the demand goes down.
- It allows developers to quickly release new products. This is because they don’t need to do any sort of backend configuration to release a new app. They can simply upload bits of code and release it.
Azure vs Google Cloud vs AWS
The cloud space is dominated by three giants: Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure.
Amazon Web Services
AWS is the alpha male of cloud computing. It offers the largest array of services and boasts the most comprehensive network of data centers.
You can select the operating system, database, web application platform, programing language, and other services.
However, AWS services are a little pricey. Its price structure is also a bit confusing.
Google made a late entry into the cloud market. However, it got off to a good start, thanks to its strong technical expertise and industry-leading tools in artificial intelligence, data analytics, and machine learning.
Google Cloud has robust PaaS and IaaS options and works seamlessly with big data applications. It follows the per-minute billing method, so you don’t have to worry about paying for something you didn’t use.
However, it offers fewer options than AWS. Another drawback is that Google’s App Engine is restricted to Python, Java, PHP, and GoogleGo.
It offers a wide array of cloud services for building, deploying, and managing applications via a network of global data centers.
Scalability is Azure’s strength, as is data security.
It provides open access across multiple frameworks, tools, and languages. If you use Windows and other Microsoft software, it makes sense to opt for Azure, as it is well integrated with these applications.
On the downside, the customer service is not the most efficient. Also, Azure is a little on the expensive side.
The best way to answer the “what is cloud computing” question is:
It’s a big leveler.
It has leveled the playing field for small and mid-sized businesses by reducing their IT costs and providing them with access to a scalable, convenient, and secure way to host their data.
Given these advantages, it’s no surprise that, according to a report, 77% of businesses today are using the cloud, and cloud adoption is on the rise.
So, how about it? When are you moving to the cloud?
This is the bottom line: The cloud offers different service models and solutions. There are cloud services for every pocket and needs. We’re sure you’ll find no problem in finding a solution that’s right for you.
And with that, we’ve come to the end of our exploration of what is cloud computing.
See you next time.
Unaware that life beyond the internet exists, Nick is poking servers and control panels, playing with WordPress add-ons, and helping people get the hosting that suits them.