What is Cloud?

Cloud has sunny outlook

Technology companies certainly don’t help themselves by using arcane jargon, such as SIP or LTE to describe capabilities or confusing generic terms such as Cloud. There is nothing worse than hearing a term being used over and over again in the media on the web and not knowing what it means. So we’ll briefly cover how the term Cloud originated, what it means now and what kinds of services ‘The Cloud’ delivers.

Cloud Origins: What it used to mean

The term Cloud has a few origins. I first used a cloud image when drawing diagrams for customers that showed their equipment and then how that equipment was connected to ‘the public network’. Instead of trying to draw the complexity of the public network, we simply represented it as a cloud shape. If the customer had several locations, we would show connecting lines between each location and the cloud – showing that the two locations were not directly connected but could ultimately ‘talk’ to each other or connect via the public network. We hid all the complexity by that one shape, the cloud shape, which let us focus on what was important to us and not some other network. Because Cloud is now more often synonymous with computing – hence Cloud Computing – many say it was used to define a cluster of computer servers with each circle representing a server and thus the outline of the overlapping circles looked like a cloud shape.

Cloud hiding complexity

Cloud hiding complexity

As time moved on, it became the representation of the Internet. If someone was describing how your site and systems connected to the internet, then we drew a line connecting to a cloud shape. It really represented, and hid, all the complexity of technology being provided and managed by somebody else that you needed to connect with but didn’t need to understand.

What Cloud means now

Over the last 5 to 10 years we have seen the continuing, exponential increase in computing power, storage and network speeds. Coupled with a capability called ‘virtualization’, it has meant that vendors can provide services from afar, practically and cost effectively. The ‘cloud provider’ builds out the data centre with their servers and any other data networking equipment required – and you connect to them over your Internet connection. No longer do you have to buy your own applications and servers, know how to set them up and manage them, to run your business.

You have a choice. You can pay or consume the services on a monthly fee basis. You don’t have to own the hardware or at least most of the complex portion of the hardware. This is terrific, particularly for small and mid-size businesses. It offloads the heavy lifting of doing the daily care and feeding of those systems. It means a complex decision may not be needed in the short term. It means you can match your costs to your revenues. It means moving from a CAPEX model to an OPEX model. And even for larger businesses, we can now provide sophisticated applications that would have taken a lot of time to get up and running, from the Cloud. IT shops can focus on more strategic areas than daily maintenance.

Other Cloud Related Terms

A challenge for many is that the term Cloud is being used in so many places by so many people, it can add to the confusion. When Salesforce.com first launched the application was accessed by logging in to their website and using the tool they provided. This is a cloud-based application. The application runs on someone else’s servers, you don’t own any equipment or software. You simply pay $X per month per person. It wasn’t called ‘Cloud’ then, but it was, and is called that now. And because we created different flavours of ‘Cloud’ we also started using the suffix ‘as-a-Service’. For example, Salesforce.com would be called ‘Software-as-a-Service’ now or SaaS. Some companies will provide all the data centre hardware and let you run your own applications or sometimes your own servers. So this was would be called Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS). And we even hear the term VaaS for Voice-as-a-Service or Video-as-a-Service. And you may even have heard the term Private Cloud bandied about and wondered what that meant. For some companies the idea of having your applications or data sitting in someone else’s data centre might not be ideal. For example, some financial institutions or healthcare institutions may be concerned about security of their data. While they like the cloud model to deliver services, they want to host all the servers in a more controlled or private environment. The data stays within the confines of the company.

What Services can be Cloud Delivered?

The answer is that it is almost limitless. Any software application today can pretty much be provided from someone else’s data centre and delivered via an Internet connection. With Internet and Mobile phone data network speeds, most people can access those applications. In fact, it may be easier to connect to those applications if provided in the cloud than on your own servers, because it makes access from home, a customer site, hotel or on the road much easier. Not only are we are seeing an explosion in companies providing applications via the cloud, we are seeing them more easily integrate with each other to provide capabilities that could go beyond what you could do integrating all your equipment together at your own location. It is now possible to deliver voice or unified communications via the Cloud. We launched FlexFone Essential last year to provide telephone services that equated to a traditional small or medium business telephone system or PBX. It has the all the advantages mentioned before – including more easily supporting multiple locations or mobile workers. More recently we launched FlexFone Advanced for companies looking to leverage more sophisticated collaboration capabilities such as Presence, Chat and Video Chat.

What else do I need to consider if using Cloud?

Cloud is here to stay – you may not even realize you are using it and many companies – especially their IT folk – are often surprised at just how many cloud applications are being used by employees. So it might be a good thing to check and be the one controlling and managing just exactly which ones are being used. For example, better to provide secure, presence and chat if your employees are sharing confidential company or customer information than using a public cloud service. You also may need to double check your network security and manage your bandwidth to ensure your corporate applications are getting priority over applications that are not company blessed, as essentially they are all ‘sharing’ the same bandwidth. Not only that, to make sure that they are not opening any possible security holes in your network. If you are running a ‘real-time’ application like Voice or Video, it is paramount to set up the network connecting to the cloud application – your internal Data Network AND your Internet connection – to ensure priority and quality of calls.

These things should not deter you looking as they can be easily managed and there are more upsides to running cloud applications than downsides.