What is cloud computing?

Posted by Tom Montague, Digital Careers State manager Vic. & Tas.  @tommont99

During a recent industry site visit with a group of year-10 students our host company said that their software offered real-time mobility to their customers because it was cloud based.

At the time I thought mmm that’s all very well but what does “cloud based” mean to students that spend their days in a classroom typically using Google and Microsoft software and services and after school using apps and social media?

While most 15 and 16 year olds know what a cloud is and most have used “the cloud” like iCloud, I felt it would have been really helpful if someone had stopped and explained what the cloud was, where it came from and where it’s going. So here it is a quick look at what is cloud computing.

Where it came from – the history of

In a lot of ways cloud computing looks a lot like back to the future on steriods. In the dark ages pre-PC (1975) most computers were main frames and users worked for the military, in universities and research facilities, and banks. Access was an “at work only” phenomenon as the software and data were stored and analysed at work.

In the heyday of the mainframe (around 1982 in Australia), people sat at dumb terminals in a computer room, typed their code, ran their programs and got their results some time that afternoon usually in the form of a computer printout printed in some other building. All the data was stored in the computer centre nowhere near your office and certainly not on your machine or a disk. All terminals were connected to the mainframe and you had your own account. When the mainframe went down (wasn’t working) everyone had to do something else which for most of us was annoying. As PCs became available (1982+) people transitioned to their own machine. You didn’t have to wait for the main frame to get working, you could still connect to a mainframe to store your data or store it locally on a disk if you wanted to. Email via mainframes started around 1985 and within 10 years people had modems for their PC and a web browser. Storage and computer hardware had gone domestic (moved to the home). Computers were connected by phone lines yet the network was slow and unreliable.

Since the 1990s access to the network has been extended using wireless technologies (i.e. cellular and Bluetooth technologies) and fibre and computers have become faster and far more reliable. Indeed access is now so good we can now reliably store and access data stored not just on our own device but also at other locations such as a computer centre, or in modern parlance, a server farm. Better still, your data can entered and analysed using web based software that others can share and we can track progress and make decisions on the fly, in real time.

How it works

Using “the Cloud” is another way of saying that you are using the internet (network) to access your data and software that is stored somewhere else. This somewhere else may mean in one location or several locations. These locations may be in Australia or overseas too. In fact your data/information could be spread across several locations. Getting at your data is usually as easy as using a web browser or running an app on a desktop or mobile device that allows you to enter and visualize your data.

The benefits of cloud

For a start storing your data elsewhere means you don’t have to worry about storage devices (your internal or external hard drive or electronic storage device) as the cloud service provider takes care of that. Similarly the service provider updates any subscriber software you might be using and backs-up your data across one or more locations.

Security of your data

While one of the benefits of cloud are that your data is generally secure even if your device is stolen, dropped or fails, unfortunately your cloud provider is now more likely to be subjected to a hack attack. There is also the issue of privacy. By its very nature cloud computing can be, and very often is, a transnational affair where the data is generated in Australia and is stored and processed in one or more offshore locations such as Singapore, India or the US.

Privacy

This is a minefield for those that live in the cloud. The area changes every day and despite the fact that people, very important people, have recognized that privacy is an issue in these digital days it is far from clear what individuals, companies (and indeed countries) might do to obtain redress for the use, loss, damage or theft of the data they store on the cloud. And even if it were clear you can bet it would not be cheap to resolve. Lawyers aren’t cheap. Of course privacy is of concern to providers of cloud services too. Nonetheless, the message is if you don’t want others to access your data, don’t use the cloud.

Where cloud is going

It’s not going anywhere but it is growing. As I’ve already mentioned privacy and security concerns aside, in the future the cloud will become more important to more people especially when the use of the internet of things (IoT) expands and grows. Of course the healthcare market (data, monitoring and decision support systems) will move to the cloud as will a lot of education content. How quickly these changes will occur is anyone’s guess.

The end bit

Fortunately it’s pretty easy to explain to students what the cloud is and there are plenty of sites around that provide far more detail on what cloud is. A few of them are listed below.

 

Cloud References

http://au.pcmag.com/networking-communications-software-products/29902/feature/what-is-cloud-computing#

dated April 2015.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_computing

http://www.salesforce.com/au/cloudcomputing/

http://www.techsoup.org/support/articles-and-how-tos/what-are-the-benefits-and-drawbacks-of-cloud-computing

http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2015/03/16/security-breaches-data-loss-outages-the-bad-side-of-cloud/

http://www.businesscloudnews.com/2014/03/12/australias-privacy-laws-come-into-force-as-csps-struggle-with-data-management/