So What Exactly Is “The Cloud?”

By Dan Naselius, CorasWorks COO

I was flying home from a business trip recently and was sitting next to a guy who managed operations in the hospitality industry.  After the normal pleasantries of “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” he leaned over and in a whisper said “Since you’re in the technology industry, can you tell me what “The Cloud” is?  My IT department is telling me we need to move our email there and I don’t even know what it is.”   The only thing he really knew was that he was being asked to pay for the service and it was supposed to be a good thing.  After telling this story to a number of friends I found that his question is not uncommon.  Most people either don’t know what the Cloud is or whether it’s a good thing.

So what exactly is The Cloud?  In its simplest terms the Cloud is a set of servers a technology company or hosting service has purchased and put into a data center.  This creates a large amount of computing capacity you likely couldn’t afford on your own, due to the costs of procuring hardware and software and the ongoing costs to manage the environment.  The technology company or hosting service then provides the ability to use this resource and only pay for what you use, and sometimes, just when you use it.

How might this help your business?  Well in the pre-Cloud days you would go to your trusty vendor of choice (Dell, HP, IBM, etc.) and buy servers, set them up in your facilities, and pay someone to make them operational and available to users.  In addition, you would likely have to buy and install software, such as Microsoft Exchange.   Very costly and time-consuming to set up, and equally as costly and time-consuming to maintain.

Now consider the Cloud alternative.  You look for a vendor that provides Cloud services and create an account, select the types of servers and services you need, and turn it on.  You are now ready to run your application (examples of Cloud vendors include Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google, and Rackspace).  You may still need to install your application, but it takes less time and money to get up and running.  You just pay for what you use!  The official term for this is Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS).

Although this is fairly easy to understand for folks in the IT business and certain executives, that wasn’t what this guy was really asking.  He was really asking about Office 365.  True, Office 365 does run on the same type of Cloud described above, but it’s different.  Office 365 is really Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).  This means you are paying to access an application.  You don’t have to set up Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, etc., but instead you sign up for Office 365 and you have everything ready to use in a relatively short amount of time.

SaaS has been around for quite some time.   SalesForce.com is probably the most well-known SaaS provider, gaining acceptance and proving the value in the business community.  So why do people now call SaaS email The Cloud?  In my opinion, because it sounds sexier and reflects Microsoft’s “all-in” strategy.  If the guy I met on the plane was told he was moving to a SaaS-based email system, he may have understood exactly what he was getting.  However, by surrounding it in the mysticism of “The Cloud” he was confused and not confident enough to question it.

So the next time you hear “going to the Cloud” or “it’s in the Cloud,” ask yourself (or someone else) if it’s the Infrastructure (IaaS) Cloud or the SaaS Cloud.  Once you get that clarification, then you can start asking more questions…..which I’ll address in my next blog post.

 

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