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What is cloud computing?

Curious about cloud computing? Here's everything you need to know

Ask people what cloud computing is, and you’re likely to get a dozen different explanations, which probably doesn’t help you understand any better. The truth is, cloud computing has so many different applications it can be tough to define it on the spot. For that, you deserve a more complete explanation. Here’s everything you need to know about cloud computing!

Cloud computing refers to moving processes and data off of the devices right in front of you (desktops, phones, etc.) and onto the internet, where they are stored in remote servers and used as needed. The “cloud” refers to the many server networks where all these data/services now exist, waiting to be accessed by users.

An excellent example of this shift is Microsoft Office. Prior to the cloud, Microsoft Office was sold as a single license and a physical disc that you uploaded to your local hard drive so you could run the software. Now (while that older model still exists), Microsoft Office is primarily offered as a subscription service that is offered over the cloud via the Office 365 suite of services, as well as a web app. It’s no longer necessary to have a physical disc, and its easier to access a bundle of specific services your home or business needs.

How the cloud works

The cloud starts with a provider. This provider offers infrastructure, specifically servers that can storage data safely: Most big providers use their own server rooms, but sometimes even the provider rents their servers. Many cloud services are just that simple, like Google Drive — a basic UI and some servers for storing a certain amount of data offsite when you don’t want to use local storage, or when you need to back up your data.

However, other cloud computing services go beyond simple storage space. They use their servers to run and offer operating systems, powerful tools, software applications, and even more complex services. If you have ever heard people talking about “aaS” or “as-a-service” capabilities, they are referring to cloud computing that provides features as an internet-based service. Software-as-a-service, platform-as-a-service, and other examples are growing increasingly common in the business world.

We already mentioned Office 365 as an example of this, but there are many other areas where consumers are benefiting from the cloud. Cloud gaming platforms in particular are growing popular, such as GeForce Now from Nvidia or the Xbox Game Pass subscription. This allows gamers to choose and play the games they want without buying a disc or taking up as much precious hard drive space on their devices.

Usually you still need to download something onto the end user device, like a dashboard or portal to access data from those remote servers (although sometimes you just need a browser to access the right website, like with Gmail). That’s why cloud services still often to operate through downloaded apps.

Some providers also include cloud capabilities within more complex software, such as Microsoft’s Office 365 ecology, which intertwines onsite (downloaded) and offsite (managed through the cloud) features.

Why cloud computing became so popular

Data and services become far more flexible when used with cloud computing. That yields powerful advantages — such as these excellent examples:

Cost savings: In many cases, the cost of buying hardware for storage, or single user licenses for software downloads, is significantly higher than getting the same features through cloud computing. Businesses have saved a lot of money by switching to virtual setups — although it isn’t always guaranteed.

Moving tasks offsite: A reliable cloud provider will take care of server maintenance and data management, which means local IT teams don’t have to worry about it (as much).

Speed: Cloud speeds depend a lot on internet connections and server uptime, but accessing cloud services is generally a lot easier for companies, especially if their local devices might struggle to run that software all on their own. This leads to more efficient work around the office or at home.

Security: For smaller companies in particularly, cloud computing allows them to use more secure services and storage than they would be able to manage on their own — as long as they pick a reliable provider that provides up-to-date patches. And even consumers can appreciate the security benefits of being able to back up data to the cloud whenever they want.

Scalability: It’s relatively simple to purchase more cloud capabilities as needed, or downside when necessary. This allows businesses to grow with their customer base or update their tech without investing money in all-new hardware and local systems. It also allows companies to offer services more easily to their customers, like Apple and iCloud, or Microsoft and Xbox Live.

The future of cloud computing

It’s everything. Ever since computers were invented, people have been trying to “rent” them out to others: Now that this popular idea is final possible even at the casual consumer level, it’s only going to get more popular. Gartner predicts that by 2021, more than half of global enterprises currently using some cloud services will have switched to an “all-in” strategy where they use little else. This trend is likely to only grow more common as cloud computing continues to improve and more businesses are emboldened to move everything into the cloud.

We’ve also seen the rise of hybrid clouds, combinations between public clouds managed primarily by providers and private clouds managed primarily by client businesses. This allows companies to choose which services they want to keep more in-house and which they want to access as a more generalized (and common) platform, while still keeping everything in the cloud.

The bottom line: Cloud computing is here to stay — and in a big way. There will always be some data that’s best kept at the local level, and always some risks in depending on the cloud. But this solution will remain one of the most important parts of modern technology.

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