What Is the Cloud? Cloud Computing Explained

If you're online often, you may have heard someone refer to "the cloud." Though the concept has been around for years, cloud computing has become increasingly popular in recent years. It's used by individuals, businesses, and organizations everywhere. In this article, we'll explain what "the cloud" is, how cloud computing works in its various models, and cover the risks associated with cloud storage services.

What is the cloud?

Cloud computing, often referred to as simply "the cloud," refers to a network of remote servers that are all connected to the Internet. These servers deliver a variety of computing services - file storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and intelligence over the Internet.

Because these services can be offered remotely through the Internet, they offer more flexibility than traditional methods. It lets individuals or organizations access powerful technology resources without having to buy and maintain their own physical infrastructure since the services are offered on a pay-per-use basis. Ultimately, with the cloud, you can store and access data from anywhere, at any time, on any device.

How does cloud computing work?

Essentially, companies host data centers that provide all the physical equipment necessary to secure, store, and share information and resources. A client then pays the company a fee in order to use their resources.

Clients upload information to this shared space, which the company backs up and saves for the client. Then, the client can access the resource in the future without needing the necessary physical equipment. The client can access their data from the storage system on any device in any location. This flexibility makes data storage far more convenient and accessible.

Cloud computing technology relies on a combination of physical and virtual resources in order to properly store, direct, and share the services and information sent through the cloud. Providers operate the aforementioned data centers that house the physical servers, storage, and networking equipment that make up the infrastructure of the cloud.

A man using cloud computing on a laptop

However, all these resources are virtualized, meaning that virtual versions of these servers and storage centers are created. This allows a single physical machine to run several virtual machine resources at once. When information or data is uploaded to the cloud, providers use specialized software to manage and control the information. They create backups and secure the data as well as making it available to the user for the future.

Cloud computing deployment models

There are three types of cloud computing models used to deploy and store information. They are public cloud, private cloud, and hybrid cloud.

Public cloud is the most well-known type of cloud deployment model; iCloud, Dropbox, and Google Drive are all examples of a public cloud. It's completely virtualized and uses the Internet to store and grant access to its resources.

Many public clouds offer stronger security methods to protect user data from being accessed by others since more than one user has data in the space at the same time. However, though all users have the same resources, each user's data and documents are kept separate unless shared by the user themselves.

Private cloud is, as the name implies, used for a single business or entity. Businesses must store physical components at the business' center, as opposed to public models that house the equipment for users. However, because only one entity uses a private cloud, it allows for more control than other deployment methods. Businesses can customize their security protocols and infrastructure.

Hybrid cloud is a mix of both public and private systems, allowing organizations to share resources while still using existing infrastructure for security benefits. Companies can store data internally and use public cloud applications to access it. In this vein, some businesses choose to use more than one public cloud service to distribute workloads or work groups across networks.

Types of cloud computing

In general, there are three types of cloud computing: Software as a Service, Platform as a Service, and Infrastructure as a Service. Each has its own benefits depending on the needs of you or your business.

Software as a Service (SaaS)

The SaaS model, or Software as a Service model, offers access to traditional software over the Internet on a subscription basis. It lets customers use a software application without having to install and maintain it themselves. Essentially, users pay for the convenience of using the provider's technology.

SaaS providers offer a wide range of applications, including productivity tools, customer relationship management (CRM) systems, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite are both examples of SaaS providers.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

The PaaS model, or Platform as a Service model, gives customers a platform to develop, run, and manage their own applications. They don't have to deal with the cost or complexity of buying and maintaining the underlying infrastructure. PaaS offers a development environment, including sets of tools and services for building, testing, and deploying applications. Examples of PaaS providers are Microsoft Azure App Service and Heroku.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

The IaaS model, or Infrastructure as a Service model, provides virtualized computing resources over the Internet, including servers, storage, and networks. This type of service lets customers rent computing resources as needed and on demand. They only pay for what they use, which helps organizations save money in the long run.

IaaS providers usually offer a variety of operating systems and software to allow customers to customize their resource configurations as they need. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure are examples of IaaS providers.

Cloud security risks

Though cloud computing offers a number of benefits, it also comes with several security concerns. Since users access services over the Internet, it makes data stored in the cloud potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. Additionally, because providers manage the underlying infrastructure for most services, the providers often have access to sensitive customer data.

Some of the main risks associated with cloud computing are:

  • Data breaches, where cybercriminals attack data stored in the cloud
  • Data loss, if a provider experiences outages or accidentally compromises a customer's account
  • Weak access controls, meaning the chosen provider doesn't provide enough flexibility in access controls to meet a customer's need

As a user of cloud services, be aware that you as the customer also need to make sure that the provider you choose is secure and takes care of confidential information. If your organization has to follow strict regulations, like HIPAA, or you enter sensitive information into any platform, make sure the provider you choose has a record of following proper protocol for such information.

Cloud with lock over it

Make sure you carefully evaluate the security features of a potential provider before choosing to use their services. Furthermore, customers should implement their own security measures, like encryption or two-factor authentication, to protect their data. Many providers have evolved to have more stringent security measures - such as using certifications and penetration testing. However, it's never a bad idea to have your own security measures in place.

Cloud providers

As cloud computing technology becomes more and more common, there's no shortage of providers on the market. Depending on your needs, you may choose to use one provider over the other - or even use multiple different providers. Some of the most popular services are:

  • Amazon Web Services
  • Google Drive
  • iCloud
  • IBM Cloud
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Salesforce
  • Adobe Creative Suite
  • Dropbox
  • Google G Suite
  • Heroku
  • Microsoft Azure App Service

Some of these providers offer SaaS applications, while some offer PaaS and others offer IaaS. Again, depending on your needs, it may be worth using more than one service simultaneously to fulfill your business' needs. For example, a graphic design company may want to invest in Adobe Creative Suite, for creating and sharing art, and also Microsoft Office 365, for document sharing and other office services. Consider what each service offers to your business and use what development tools you need to most improve your organization's performance.

Frequently asked questions

Is the cloud free?

No, the cloud is not free, though some services offer a free version or free trial of their services with limited features or capacity. Most providers offer pay-as-you-go pricing models, though specific prices vary by provider.

What is cloud storage?

Cloud storage simply refers to the storage service offered by various cloud computing providers. Providers typically offers a variety of storage options and sizes at different price points, and users get features like automatic data backup and sharing options for collaboration.

What are the four types of cloud computing?

The four different types of cloud computing services are public, private, hybrid, and multi-cloud.

Can anyone access your cloud data?

No, your cloud storage data isn't available to just anyone; data access is controlled by the provider and the customer. However, despite security measures, sometimes accounts are compromised, which could result in your information being shared or leaked.