Technical Concepts for Non-Developers, Part 4 – The Cloud

If you consume any type of media, there’s a good chance you’ve heard people talk about “the cloud.” I asked a couple of friends how they would explain it, and they responded with words like “infinite” and “imaginary.”

Although it seems like a nebulous concept, the cloud isn’t some mysterious thing that lives somewhere far away in the sky. The buzzword gets thrown around in a lot of different contexts, but the details that hide behind the cloud aren’t as complex as they may seem.

What Is the Cloud?

The cloud is a large network of servers that store data and run software programs and services. Gmail, for example, is a cloud service. If you have a Gmail account, all of your messages are stored on Google’s servers. Even the software itself runs on those servers (unlike a traditional email program like Microsoft’s Outlook, which runs and stores messages on the hard drive inside your computer). You could open Gmail and read your messages from just about any computer or phone in the world with an internet connection.

Many businesses use the cloud to store data and host software. In fact, 451 research found that 90% of organizations use some type of cloud service. Lots of different interactions are facilitated by the cloud.

Advantages of the Cloud

Let me give another example. Once upon a time, we all saved digital photos to our computers; you either added it to your hard drive or wrote it to an external drive. This method let you access the photos when you were using your computer, even if it wasn’t connected to the internet. Unfortunatley, if something bad happened to the computer and its storage was destroyed, the photos were lost.

Today, however, many people save their photos to the cloud (using a service like Google Photos or Dropbox). This way, you can still access your photos even if your personal machine is damaged. Because your photos are stored in some cloud server, you can retrieve them anywhere that has access to the internet. This is one of the great benefits of cloud computing.

When you save something to the cloud, you aren’t saving it to an imaginary place. The file is still saved to a physical server, and you don’t have to worry about where it lives. These details get taken care of by the cloud provider or the company that offers the cloud service. Companies that operate cloud services have data centers all over the world that house computing hardware to support and run the cloud. This management of resources by cloud providers is a great advantage for consumers. We don’t have to concern ourselves with where the physical storage is housed or how to keep it safe.

Moreover, cloud resources are almost always scalable, allowing us to use what we need when we need it. If we only need to store a few hundred photos, we can use a small amount of cloud storage, likely at a very low cost. If we eventually have thousands of photos we want to store, we can simply scale up the amount of cloud storage we want and pay a bit more money for it. We can increase or decrease the amount of storage as we need, something that would be quite difficult to do on our own. The cloud makes more computing possible.

You can think of the cloud as a very powerful computer that’s preprogrammed with lots of helpful tools. There are many services that the cloud offers, like high-power computing, network management, and various types of data storage. The cloud gives us access to an amount of computing power that, individually, we would never have the ability to access. That’s probably why the cloud is so confusing — it has so many capabilities! But hopefully, by digging into some of the details, I’ve made the cloud seem less nebulous.