It sounds ethereal and intangible, but the cloud is pretty down-to-earth. Simply put, the cloud stores data and programs on servers which can be easily accessed via the internet. This frees up data from being stored locally on an individual’s computer or an organization’s on-site server. Fittingly, The Weather Channel (TWC) utilizes the cloud to deliver fifteen billion forecasts each day. Such computing power allows weather.com to be available within one hundred milliseconds to anyone on earth—not an easy task. To transform from the tornado-chasing cable TV company to a global weather data provider, TWC acquired various companies around the world, leading to a complicated IT infrastructure that contained over a dozen data centers. By moving to the cloud, TWC cut the number of data centers in half, saving $1 million each year. TWC is not the only company leveraging the cloud. According to Onyx, 75% of businesses are using cloud computing in some way with 84% of CIOs reporting savings by moving to the cloud.
Though the cloud is one of the tech industry’s most popular technologies, it actually preceded the World Wide Web. In fact, the concepts that led to the cloud began when computers were still the size of rooms. Too costly for a single company to purchase and maintain, users would access these computers/mainframes through time-sharing, similar to the pay-as-you-go plans that many cloud companies currently utilize. A brief history follows:
- 1969 – J.C.R Licklider developed ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the basis for what we know as the internet today.
- 1970s – IBM improved on time-sharing by creating Virtual Machines, which allowed multiple virtual systems on one computer.
- 1990s – Telecommunication companies developed Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), providing more control over networks and bandwidth.
- 2000s – The term “the cloud” was coined to refer to any shared pool of computer resources accessed over the internet.
To help clear the air on the cloud, The National Institute of Standards and Technology has coined five essential characteristics defining cloud technologies:
- On-demand self service – Providing computing resources on an as-needed basis without human interaction (e.g. signing up for a new app is immediate).
- Broad network access – Access to data and programs over the internet on multiple devices, from desktop to mobile (e.g. accessing home cameras from smartphone and desktop).
- Resource pooling – Combining computing resources to serve multiple users, often from different locations (e.g. Amazon Web Services providing infrastructure).
- Rapid elasticity – Scaling to size and power of the user, no more and no less (e.g. adding more space for iCloud photos).
- Measured service – Monitoring and controlling usage, similar to utilities (e.g. Netflix measuring what is watched).
Today, not all clouds are the same. With the availability of multiple cloud deployment models, there’s a good fit for consumers of all kinds. What about cybersecurity? It’s an outdated, uninformed fear that data on the cloud is not secure. In fact, data stored onsite or in proprietary servers is actually less secure and more susceptible to cybersecurity attacks than most cloud services today. Storing data on the cloud can easily be part of an organization’s airtight controls environment and proactive risk management. The virtual cloud has four different deployment models to meet different consumers’ needs:
- Public cloud: A cloud open to use by the general public owned by a business, educational, or government institution. There’s not much difference between a public and private cloud other than access. Even a company’s use of a public cloud can be SOX compliant and part of a successful internal controls environment. Common examples of public clouds include Dropbox or Google Drive.
- Private cloud: A cloud dedicated to a single organization with similar advantages to the public cloud but with increased security and regulations. Private clouds can be owned and operated by the company, a third party, or both. Cloud servers can be located on or off site with computing resources protected by the organization’s firewall.
- Community cloud: A private cloud shared with multiple organizations. Organizations in healthcare or government can benefit from such a model.
- Hybrid cloud: A cloud model with any combination of the other cloud models. Large corporations may use this model to protect trade secrets while also benefiting from the scalability of a public cloud provider.
Next time someone speaks of the cloud in an ominous tone, ask if they have checked the weather for this weekend or if they have seen “House of Cards” on Netflix. The cloud has freed computing power from the limitations of a single device and has revolutionized when and where companies conduct business. Utilizing the service and deployment models mentioned above will open all kinds of possibilities for individuals and organizations, including cost savings, risk mitigation, and enhanced controls. The sky’s the limit.
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