October 22, 2010

Send in the clouds of efficiency

If you spend any time at all hanging out with IT/system admin types, you’ve no doubt heard the nebulous term “cloud,” as in: “Let’s store it on the cloud,” or “Steve really has his head in the cloud(s).”

I’m not making a derogatory statement about Steve; he really does have his head in one cloud in particular. His days are pretty much dominated with the migration of our in-house servers to that wonderful and mystical place somewhere on the Internet called “the cloud.”

Internet-based computing is really the most basic definition of the cloud. Even though “cloud computing” is relatively new, as long as we have been dialing-up, logging-on, and connecting to the World Wide Web, we have been participating in some form of cloud computing.

The term cloud computing comes partly from the world of computer science, where a literal image of a cloud is usually drawn in diagrams to represent the Internet or a large network environment of some kind – in most cases, an offsite network. When used in a diagram in this fashion, it is just an abstraction of some higher level network processing; it says, “We don’t really care what is going on in there, or what is even in there. We just know there are things in there that will handle our data and we have an expectation that is will process our requests.”

From the end user’s perspective, the cloud is nothing more than a collection of resources that maintains and manages itself. There are, of course, people to keep the hardware, operation systems and networking in proper order, but for decades, this explanation of the cloud has been sufficient for about 99.999 percent of the people who even need to know what the cloud is. But we are about to turn on the fog lights and head into this somewhat murky world.

Software as a service

The cloud, for all intents and purposes, operates as a service; users access it to perform some kind of action or task. There are two popular and common services, or delivery methods, provided by the cloud: Software as a Service (Saas) and Infrastructure as a Service (Iaas).

Anyone who has ever accessed the Internet has used an SaaS. The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines SaaS as an application used by a consumer who does not control the operating system, hardware or network infrastructure on which it’s running. Some common examples would be mapping and direction software like Google Maps and MapQuest, Web-based email clients like Yahoo and Gmail, and organizational services like Google’s calendar.

You probably noticed a theme in there. While SaaS pre-dates Google, Google is taking a lead in the development of SaaS applications.

Software as a Service isn’t limited to the public domain by any means. Many SaaS providers offer individuals, businesses and institutions customized solutions for billing, financial management and other database-driven types of applications. Most of these SaaS instances are available for a monthly service fee.

There are a multitude of benefits behind the use of SaaS both to the developer and the end user. The biggest of these benefits is the ability to offer the software to a multitude of platforms – the same exact software, with the same exact features, operates exactly the same on Tom’s PC, Dick’s Mac, and Harry’s Linux box. If they can access the Internet, the software will work.

A single-release version that is platform-independent is a huge benefit for developers, and something that is impossible to achieve with boxed software. It also allows updates to the software for all users to be made quickly and efficiently. This insures that all users are using the exact same version at any given time.

Infrastructure as a service

When IT types talk about cloud computing, nine times out of 10, they are talking about Infrastructure as a Service. IaaS is when the typical IT hardware of a business, servers and storage devices, processing power and middleware, are moved offsite, typically to a large data center. End users back at the company access these systems either through a Web browser or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and in most cases don’t even know that those systems aren’t in house.

This type of service, much like SaaS, isn’t all that new; Web hosting companies are a prime example of an established use of IaaS. Popular consumer forms of IaaS are photo-sharing services like Flickr and Snapfish. Instead of using your computer’s hard drive to store images, you simply use the cloud.

The benefits IaaS are tremendous to companies of all sizes. Scalability and reliability are two of the biggest, removing the bulk of the headaches and frustrations from the lives of system administrators. Increasing or decreasing the size of storage space, adding or removing networking capabilities, or updating shared software can be accomplished with a few mouse clicks or a phone call to the data center. Server downtime for updates, repair and replacement are a thing of the past.

But these perks don’t come without a cost. IaaS can be very expensive, but usually no more so than buying and maintaining the same hardware in house.

Now that we have looked at clouds from both sides now, it’s important to point out that this is in no way a complete description of the cloud – it’s not even close. There are a whole set of standards, deployment models and use cases that we could spend the better part of a year’s worth of columns exploring.

Until next time: Reputo. Lego. Diligo.

Michael Wailes is an Interactive Developer at Burns Marketing and Communications in Johnstown. If you have questions or would like to suggest a topic for a future Geek Chic column, e-mail him at news@ncbr.com.   

If you spend any time at all hanging out with IT/system admin types, you’ve no doubt heard the nebulous term “cloud,” as in: “Let’s store it on the cloud,” or “Steve really has his head in the cloud(s).”

I’m not making a derogatory statement about Steve; he really does have his head in one cloud in particular. His days are pretty much dominated with the migration of our in-house servers to that wonderful and mystical place somewhere on the Internet called “the cloud.”

Internet-based computing is really the most basic definition of the cloud. Even though “cloud computing”…

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