“The cloud” is ever more present: “share your files over the cloud”, “access your files from your smartphone with the power of the cloud”, “because of the cloud, everyone can access your data”, “make savings thanks to the cloud” are common expressions. But what is “the cloud”, really?
“The cloud” is a bit of a catch-all term for using remote computers (whether in the next room or on the other side of the planet), that is, machines which function as computers but to which one must connect over a network (such as the internet, for example). Such computers are called servers. Once connected, one may make use of their hardware (to perform a computation on a processor, for example) or their software (using an application installed on the server).
So why is that better?
First of all, those resources are often modular. One does not connect directly to a server, but rather to a system comprised of several hundreds of servers. If you want to perform a quick computation, then you use a single processor. If you want to perform a complicated computation, then you may connect to dozens of servers and use their processors in parallel.
Once the computation is done, the processors become available to other users. That provides you with a flexible infrastructure. There is no need to invest in an extremely powerful processor which might not be used but once in a while.
Next, these resources are often suited to a specific purpose: take online storage, companies which offer storage “in the cloud” invest in servers with very large hard drives. Thus, the infrastructures will be specialized for that domain and may provide better services (data encryption, file replication so that no data is lost in case of hard drive failure or fire…). However, those servers will undoubtedly be useless to play the latest video games…
By connecting to a server, one may always use the latest version of a piece of software. Take a website: if the webmaster makes a change to the site, all users will see the latest version when they connect to it. It’s the same with “the cloud”. If Google updates their applications, everyone who connects there will automatically see the latest release. This is particularly interesting for IT departments: no more need to update applications on every workstation, it is enough to make the change in a single place and everyone connecting will be covered.
Finally, since servers are remote, nothing changes whether you are home or away, whether on your phone or on your computer. Often, an internet connection is enough to have access to all the features (again, this is similar to a website, which is displayed in the same way, whether you access it from your home or while away).
But then, why is this not so good?
Since the server is not local, if your connection is not working (because of an internet problem, for example), then you will have no access to its resources (hardware and software) and therefore also not to your data.
Since your data is stored remotely, you are not totally in charge, it is under the control of the company that houses it (at which it is stored).
I hope that you now see what is “the cloud”. In the next article, we will tackle the problems and solutions regarding security and privacy which are inherent to this technology.