Everyone has heard of cloud computing. The term is used over and over on TV, in the media, at tradeshows, and by salespeople. Unfortunately, it means so many things to so many different people, now no one really knows what someone is referring to when they talk about “cloud computing” (without getting a lot more information). Microsoft says that they store your photos in the cloud. You can get cloud email. Who knows, your printer could even be “cloud capable”. This week, I saw a TV commercial for a company that offered insurance, payroll services, and cloud computing. It seems like everyone just wants to say that they sell “the cloud” without ever taking time to define why you need it or how it really works.
As IT Pros we want to embrace cutting edge technology and leverage that technology to the benefit of our companies. Of course, we also want to use cutting edge technology to make our lives, as IT pros, better. So is it time for you to “use the cloud”? What does that even mean? What does a cloud offer? Let’s find out.
What’s the Difference Between a Virtual Infrastructure and Cloud?
With most of you reading this being virtualization admins and having a virtual infrastructure, you may be wondering what the difference is between what you have and a “cloud” on top. Cloud infrastructures abstract away the objects you are used to managing with your virtual infrastructure. For example, you are used to managing hosts, resource pools, clusters, and virtual machines for your own datacenter. With a cloud infrastructure you have a (seemingly) infinite, secure, and highly available pool of computing resources in which you don’t worry about the typical virtual infrastructure objects (you don’t even know about them). With a cloud, you are able to use a self-service portal to quickly deploy pre-built groups of virtual machines for specific roles (such as a database with a web server front-end). You manage your “virtual datacenter” with no knowledge of what else is happening. Typically, you are just billed for what you use.
Public vs. Private Cloud Computing
To know if you “need the cloud”, let’s first understand what “the cloud” is. First, there is public cloud and private cloud. A public cloud is the type of cloud that you see big companies (like Microsoft) advertising on TV. When they say “take it to the cloud”, they want you to move your data to their datacenter. That data could be actual data that you have or, as with software as a service (discussed more below), it’s the data from your applications that is stored in their cloud (such as your photo sharing software). The public cloud doesn’t just have to be someone keeping your data, it could really be someone else doing anything for you (such as editing your photos). When it comes to server virtualization, public cloud is where you run your virtual machines.
So if public cloud is someone else doing something for you, private cloud is you doing it for yourself. All forms of cloud services can be built in house, in your own datacenter with you retaining total control. Private cloud eliminates the concerns related to security breach in a shared datacenter or compliance concerns related to shared storage. While private cloud removes those types of concerns, it adds some additional concerns that, with public cloud, you can dump on the cloud provider. For example, with your own private cloud you are responsible for monitoring capacity, planning for the future, and ensuring high availability. If the private cloud needs to ramp up resources quickly, you are responsible.
A very controversial difference between public and private cloud revolves around the associated cost. With public cloud you know that the public cloud provider is offering their services to make a profit. You as the customer know that you are paying them (based on your usage) to do something you could do and adding some level of profit on top. The flip side to that is that the provider will claim that they can offer the same services for less money than you are able to do because they are doing it on a larger scale. Of course, all this is debatable.
What happens when you connect your private cloud to a public cloud? You get a “hybrid cloud” where these clouds can work together (which may be the best of both worlds).
3 Types of Cloud Computing Services
No matter whether you use public or private cloud, there are multiple types of cloud services that can be offered. Here are the three most common forms of cloud services:
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – just like your virtual infrastructure in your existing datacenter, IaaS clouds add cloud services on top (multi-tenancy, security, self-service). With public IaaS clouds, elasticity gives you the ability to expand and contract your infrastructure as needed. You could connect your private cloud to your public IaaS cloud to create a hybrid cloud.
- Platform as a Service (PaaS) – for developers who need to deliver an application (usually to the Internet), platform as a service cloud offerings have the backend databases already available, clustered web servers available, and all you need to provide is your application code to get your application up and running (potentially to millions of users) as quickly as possible.
- Software as a Service (SaaS) – likely the cloud service that all of us has already used is software as a service. Free Internet webmail services (like Gmail or Yahoo Mail) are the most common examples of software as a service. Other Internet applications like Microsoft’s Office 365, Dropbox, or SalesForce.com are all common software as a service applications. What makes these cloud services is that these companies are doing something for you (such as providing you email services) that you could have provided in house, using your own datacenter.
While those are the three most common cloud computing services, providers around the world have made up their own services and acronyms for spinoffs of these. For example:
- DRaaS – disaster recovery as a service
- BUaaS – backup as a service
- DaaS – desktop as a service
- STaaS – storage as a service
(and there are more).
Do You Need Cloud Computing?
Now let’s get back to the question that originally started this article – do you need cloud computing? Hopefully, this will help you decide:
- Software as a Service – Yes, you likely already use this and will continue to use it
- Platform as a Service – If you are a developer, this could be the right option for you – research to learn more about it.
- Infrastructure as a Service – if your business is quickly growing or regularly expands and contracts then IaaS may be a great option for you. Test it and compare costs to learn more.
- Private IaaS cloud – if you are at a large enterprise and want to provide self-service with chargeback (or showback) to different divisions of your company, then consider private IaaS cloud
Other services mentioned like DRaaS and BUaaS are becoming more and more popular. If you could use help with disaster recovery or backup then these types of cloud services may be the most logical entry point for you (and your company) to test and adopt public cloud computing services.
Cloud computing is “raging hot” in the technology world but marketing people and companies trying to sell cloud computing have really pushed “the cloud” so hard that IT people are confused as to what is what and why they need it. I recommend taking a step back from all the cloud computing marketing propaganda; learn about the different types of cloud and the different cloud services to determine if any of these are a good fit for you and your company. Cloud computing is not “one size fits all”.