Cloud Computing 101 – An easy to understand tutorial

Welcome cloud developers, IT buyers, investors and entrepreneurs!  We will be dedicating this blog to demystifying cloud computing, so that it is easier to understand. 

Here we go…

A new era of computing is upon is — cloud computing.

This immediately brings up several important questions, which deserve thoughtful answers: “What is cloud computing?” “Is it real, or just another buzzword?” And most important, “How does it affect me?”

In short, cloud computing is completely real and will affect almost everyone. In this day and age, we have all become stakeholders in the computing movement, and we are all affected when major changes occur. Remember how things changed when the Internet came along? Changes in computer technology seem to move at lightning speeds. It wasn’t that long ago that desktop computers had 20MB hard drives and people relied on floppy disks for storage. For that matter, it wasn’t that long ago that there were no desktop computers, and computing involved cardboard punchcards fed into a hopper.

It should be no surprise that another evolution is upon us once again, as there have been several since the dawn of the information age. In this book, we choose the term “era” because cloud computing is more than an evolution. Rather, we’re entering the type of radical shakeup that only comes around once every 20 to 30 years: a disruptive shift in the underlying computing platform-of-choice. Remember when we moved from host computers to PCs? Now, cloud computing is shifting that computing power back to hosts again. Only this time things are different, because those hosts have become abstract, and are scattered all over the Internet… all over the world. That is to say that computing power is being shifted to the “cloud”. Such a shift to cloud computing would not have been possible until now, because the enabling technology did not yet exist. Broadband connectivity now makes cloud computing a realistic possibility for not just larger companies, but for small businesses, SOHO operations, and individual consumers. These users now have the fat pipes they need to access the cloud, and they also have access now to applications and services that they couldn’t begin to access or afford just a few years ago. The possibilities are growing even faster as the US government undertakes its rural broadband initiatives, which in turn will push the potential of the cloud further to the masses.

Why put applications and data in the cloud? Lots of reasons, depending on who you are: If you’re just writing a document or working from home, then you can probably find online apps to do the trick without buying expensive office software. If you’re an IT guy, even better—the cloud makes computing easier to manage, drives down costs (as compared to PCs and dedicated servers), and allows end-users to gain access to a broader range of applications and services. Sure, PCs and dedicated servers have served us well, but not without problems: They crash; they require us to buy, manually install, upgrade and uninstall expensive software; they become bloated, slow and loaded with viruses. Wouldn’t it be so much better if someone else could take care of all the hassles? With cloud computing, we “rent” only what we need and somebody else manages the dirty work. Ask any IT person about their work schedule, and you’ll find out quickly that expectations and workload often exceed the reasonable amount of time anybody really wants to work. And more importantly, ask the CFO who signs the paychecks. Do they want to cut costs? Absolutely. And cloud computing will do it—cutting costs while giving the IT staff a break at the same time.

An even greater impact in the emergence of cloud computing may be that it inspires a new wave of entrepreneurship. Nowadays, thanks to the cloud, nearly anyone can launch a genuine global business for mere pocket change. Venture funding has given way to back-pocket funding, and startup entrepreneurs no longer need $100,000 to hire a system administrator, or to buy new business software and servers. Today’s emerging entrepreneurs can do everything over the Internet, and without the burden of huge up-front capital expenditures. With cloud computing, they can do more than collaborate. They can participate.

This isn’t to say that cloud computing is perfect. It’s not. In fact, it’s not even close. It’s new, and there are thousands of kinks to still be worked out. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Computer Security Division, the cloud model still suffers from significant security challenges. For example, Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors are implementing disparate security approaches, raising critical questions about where data is hosted, international privacy laws, exposure of data to foreign entities, nonstandard authentication and leaks in multi-tenant architectures. These security concerns are putting mission critical data at risk, while slowing the adoption of cloud computing technologies. That’s why NIST is such an important contributor to the future of cloud computing.

Whatever the case, cloud computing is here to stay. There is a popular quote attributed to Thomas Watson, founder of IBM: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” That quote assumed that computers were only for the very largest customers. We’ve come a long way since that speculation, and the general trend has been to move computing into the hands of everybody from big business users, all the way down to preschool children. Cloud computing continues that trend by bringing greater levels of access to high-end applications and data storage, as well as new techniques for collaboration, to even the smallest mom ‘n pop businesses, telecommuters, and independent work-at-home contractors.

Mr. Watson got many things right and to his credit once again, what if his quote was saner than it once sounded? The term “cloud” refers to the computing power that is available across the Internet. In a sense, the cloud is rapidly transforming a worldwide network of computers into the largest single, “virtual” computer in the world.  (more tomorrow)

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