What Is the Cloud? It's Okay to Ask and Even Better to Find Out!

Much like “Internet of Things”, “5G”, and “we need to talk”, there are certain phrases which manage to be, to the uninitiated, vague and yet quite ominous. In this vein, one could argue that no question is more foggy than “ what is the cloud? ”.

Let’s get you up to speed.

What is the cloud, really?

Let’s start with a touch of history.

Back in the 1950s, computer mainframes weren’t exactly compact. In fact, they were the size of a room. In order to optimize space, people used “dumb terminals” and took turns plugging them in to a shared mainframe. Thus, several users shared the resources and processing power of a common mainframe.

what is the cloud

Nowadays, people use the cloud’s computing power in order to run a service. Companies dedicated to image sharing like Pinterest or music streaming such as Spotify have always operated on the cloud. Others, like Xerox (whose name is synonymous with plodding paper products), have moved more recently toward at least partial cloud computing.

Others provide users with additional storage space. Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, to name a few, all allow you to make use of their server space to store your data.

Armed only with a sufficiently brawny internet connection, you can access stored data, run web-based applications, and basically carry on with your day from any device, anywhere.

The ubiquity and convenience of the cloud has facilitated the emergence of Software as a Service. The two, though not synonymous, go hand in hand.

Now, these servers are not immaterial like the word “cloud” might suggest. They are very much terrestrial. The servers which make up the cloud are located all over the world. They can be part of a company’s private cloud, for their use only. They could be part of the network belonging to mammoth “public” providers, such as Amazon Web Services. Such large providers own servers all over the world. This way, they can cater to customers located anywhere.

The total number of servers making up the cloud is in fact as staggering as it is impossible to nail down. Even a modest, four year old estimate places the size of the cloud at a dizzying one exabyte. How’s that for material presence?

Now that I’ve maligned the cloud’s ethereal, disincarnate image and that we are all better informed for it, let’s look at how making the leap to cloud-computing can benefit your professional activity.

Concretely, what can the cloud do for your business?

It’s no exaggeration to say that more and more companies are transitioning to a cloud-based model, or at least a hybrid one. The industry is expanding quickly, and continuously exceeds expectations.

Now that almost every device is endowed with a powerful internet connection, it’s very convenient to be able to let the cloud do the heavy lifting in some respects.

what is the cloud

what is the cloud

How can the cloud help grow your business?

There are a number of advantages to making the leap to cloud computing. Here’s a selection, backed up with concrete examples to make it all a bit less opaque:

Mobility

We’ve already touched on this. Undeniably, one of the foremost upsides to having your business operate on the cloud is the fact that your data and applications will be accessible from anywhere. Provided a stable internet connection is available, no matter the device or the place, you will be able to stay on top of your work day.

“I don’t need a hard disk in my computer if I can get to the server faster… carrying around these non-connected computers is byzantine by comparison.” – Steve Jobs

Consider this: you are able to synchronize your CRM on all of your devices. This means that your customer information, reminders, emails, etc. are all readily available. If you leave your phone at home one day, you’ll be able to seamlessly stay in touch with coworkers and customers alike. Really, the biggest inconvenience you’ll be met with is being unable to play Candy Crush.

Collaboration made easy

Since your coworkers and employees will access the tools their job requires easily and without fuss, it will expedite collaboration within your business. There exist a slew of web-based services aiming to foster quick and effective communication. This can benefit your customer service, your internal communication, and your overall productivity.

They can be so intuitive and so simple that very soon using them to bring you closer to your workforce or your customers will become second nature. The cloud’s flexibility, adaptability, and reactivity will make it easier and effortless to commune with your coworkers, business partners, and most importantly, your customers.

Flexibility

As your company evolves and changes, you will need to scale your resources. Cloud based services make it easy to tweak your plan with every modification to your workforce. As the nature and intensity of your activity fluctuate, you need to be able to adapt quickly.

“Leaders everywhere are bypassing IT departments to get applications from the cloud […] and paying for them like they would a magazine subscription. And when the service is no longer required, they can cancel that subscription with no equipment left unused in the corner.” – Daryl Plummer, Gartner analyst

Netflix is a masterful example of using the cloud to navigate activity spikes and lulls. Their transition to a fully cloud-supported system was motivated less by cost reduction, and more by its increased plasticity. If a company the size of Netflix can benefit from such adaptability, smaller businesses have an even narrower margin of error. No deficit, no surplus, no loss to your resources or work force. The cloud’s elasticity in this regard is one of its prime advantages.

Lower Upfront and Total Costs

Purchasing physical equipment is expensive from the get-go. Moreover, from the very moment you sign that check, the monetary value and technological relevance of your equipment will only decrease. A server bay or a material PBX will become more and more obsolete and onerous to maintain.

Conversely, relying on a third party to store your data or to execute service programs will cost much less, especially upfront. Most cloud storage or service companies charge a fee per month or per user. You won’t be paying for something you don’t use, and you won’t be constantly needing to buy or maintain hardware or software.

For instance, take choosing a cloud-based VOIP business phone system over an onsite model. Charging businesses by the user means two things. First, is it overall more cost-effective. Second, it also affords your changing business remarkable flexibility, which leads me to the next point.

Software and hardware upkeep

However, going cloud-based means that the servers which are at the base of your business aren’t your responsibility. The service companies you use will be the ones tasked with making sure everything is in ship-shape. This rather lessens the need for you to have a tech specialist on hand, especially in a smaller company.

Data storage companies will keep their storage servers secure and functional. Service companies will be on top of their apps, keeping them updated and bug-free. They will stay informed on the ever-evolving tech landscape for you. Updates will roll out as soon as they are ready, unlike home-grown or purchased software which could only be updated once a year. This will remove the need for expensive and complex hardware on your end.

You will fear neither obsolescence, nor the evolution of the technology you use as a tool outstripping your user knowledge. You will be freed up to run your company rather than worry whether a bird has made a nest in your server bay.

Disaster recovery

No one is immune to dire incidents. A cloud storage service ensures that the information crucial to your business running smoothly is safe. Services exist to suit every need, from keeping large volumes of data all in one place, to finding a secure home for the most sensitive of information.

In addition to this, the recovery time of a cloud-based DR service is much shorter than that of a non-virtualized approach. This is due in part to the fact that the cloud allows you to preserve not only your data, but your entire company’s operating systems, patches, programs, and more.

Going green

Cloud computing has a much lower environmental impact than onsite operations. The cloud collectivizes resources for its users, like the mainframes of days past. This efficiency reduces both the overall number of servers, and the loss of energy resulting from them being private, but under-utilized.

For the planet, less hardware means less space used for storage, less energy used for power and cooling. De-materializing data means less need for paper products, the production of which is extremely noxious. For your company, all of this means cut costs. No more stacks of papers, external hard drives, or Rolodexes (I hope you weren’t still using one of those).

Like any still-emerging technological advance, the cloud is still ironing out kinks and stabilizing itself. The biggest concerns for cloud-skeptics or cloud-neophytes are the downtime and security.

Downtime

No service provider is immune to outages or downtime. Fortunately, providers take steps to prevent any inconvenience for their subscribers. One way to guarantee the quickest resolution if your service provider conks out is to demand a service level agreement (SLA). This agreement between your business and the provider guarantees a minimum of uptime they must deliver, always above 99%.

The fact remains that downtime is a daunting possibility whether your servers are your own, or belong to a cloud service provider. It is impossible to completely eradicate this threat. It can be helpful to calculate the cost of downtime to your company both through a cloud provider and through onsite means. Nevertheless, some estimate that being based on the cloud can actually be more stable than the alternative.

Security and privacy

Security is one of the most hotly debated aspects of the cloud, especially when it comes to storage. The idea that your data is inherently unsafe in the cloud is still prevalent for some. The business of cloud security is expanding dramatically in order to tighten up cloud-based storage.

While, again, there is no zero risk policy to any scenario, cloud experts are eager to debunk these assumptions. To quote one of the specialists interviewed in the article linked in the last sentence:

“Cloud providers live, eat, and breathe network security while most other organizations don’t usually list it as one of their core competencies,” Leo Reiter, CTO, Nimbix.

This is especially true given that most security breaches are due to human error or malicious intent. This factor is important to consider whether your company operates onsite or on the cloud.

Cloud providers make it their business to stay ahead of potential threats. It can be difficult to replicate that kind of commitment, relentlessness, and vigilance in an onsite setting. This is especially true if your company is not yet large enough to accommodate a well-staffed IT department. If that’s the case, chances are you have other, more pressing fish to fry.

The transition to cloud computing is well underway for many businesses large and small. For even more business, it’s in the cards. It remains a daunting question with many moving parts. In order to determine whether this leap is right for your business, there is no better attitude than educating yourself. And reading this guide was clearly a good start!

Has your company already adopted cloud computing? Are you considering it? Let us know what you think in the comment section!

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