Head in the Cloud

A brief tour through the cloud and its magic

Cloud Computing”,  a strategically chosen phrasing for power-hungry server farms, steadily positioned on earth, is something that has managed to abruptly integrate itself in every aspect of your life, from your fridge to your video library. But is the cloud really another cutting-edge buzzword technology, and why is it booming? Let’s find out.

Look up, what do you see?

First of all, what is the cloud? No, when your iPhone says your data is safely secured in the cloud, it is in fact not floating around above our heads. It simply means that the data is stored on a large server farm. Cloud computing can be seen as an umbrella term for several technologies. The cloud can be distinguished into three main types:

  • Public cloud, third party service providers provide their computing resources over the internet, they manage all the hardware and the user can access the services through a web browser.
  • Private cloud, companies often prefer to have total control and secure access over their data, so they often opt for a private cloud. It is often in the form of an on-site data centre, where the services can be accessed through a private network.
  • Hybrid cloud, essentially a combination of both public and private cloud, allowing for greater flexibility.

Cloud computing is in its essence the sharing of computer resources on a high level, allowing for great technological conveniences and power.

Who’s cloud is it anyways?

The major tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are the leading suppliers of cloud functionality and innovation, but it is down to every single developer to bring it to the customer. At the core, these large companies were not providers of cloud functionality, yet it has become an essential part of their business that generates incredible amounts of revenue.

Lets, for example, look at Google (well technically, Alphabet, but let’s not confuse each other), its original service we’re all familiar with, search, is driven by the cloud. If your own phone would have to crawl past every single web page out there, it would take you significantly longer, to say the least. Google uses their servers to do this for you (in a smarter way, don’t worry), saving you time and power. Over the years Google has expanded their arsenal of services and products, Google Drive is one of them. Drive gives users access to a small part of their data servers, given them an online place for storing and accessing their files (or do is it more about you giving your data to Google, hmm…). For a lot of people Drive was the first interaction with the cloud that they had (at least, that they were aware of). Drive is a cloud service for the consumer, free of charge. But Google also goes way beyond that…

Something that not a lot people are aware of is that the common household name companies Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are also deeply rooted in the cloud industry, offering industrial scale cloud services, not for the average consumer.  Said companies are always heavily investing in their technology, always challenging their engineers to configure their service optimally to guarantee the best service. The market leader is the what once was an online bookstore, Amazon. In the second quarter of 2018, Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services) generated a whopping UD$ 6.11 Billion in revenue, showing just how large the industry is.

History

When the foundation of the internet was born, so was the cloud. The first appearance of the cloud dates back to as early as 1977 when the cloud symbol was used to refer to a network of computers in the US military’s ARPANET. Later, the term cloud would start to mean distributed computing. But the concept of companies or individuals renting computer time dates back from the 1960s when computers were rare. 

Universities were no exception, educational instances were always at the frontier of technology. Nowadays everyone has a personal computer, but this idea used to be absurd. Technical studies would allow their students to send maths problems or a small computer program to be run on the universities stronger computers, and the only thing left to do was for the student to anxiously wait and hope he or she made no mistakes.

It was only in the mid-2000’s that Amazon Introduced their AWS, and Google an early version of their cloud platform, with Microsoft to follow with Azure. With these services on the market, cloud computing rose to unforeseen scale.

Impact and usage

Both consumers and businesses have greatly benefited from cloud technologies, and some actually solely rely on it. I’d even argue that there is no one in the modern day that is not connected to the cloud, however, plenty of people are not aware of it (telling your aunt that there is still hope for the pictures on her destroyed phone etc).

For businesses of both small and large scale, the cloud is truly a game changer, the enormous hassle of buying and maintaining expensive service systems is something that can be simply outsourced to external parties like Microsoft. This saves both enormous costs, and furthermore, it suddenly is not necessary anymore for small companies, let’s say a bakery, to know how to maintain a database system.

What was also radically new for companies and developers that the cloud offers dynamic scaling. For example, a small company specialised in Christmas decoration has a few weeks of peak sales, would it be really necessary to buy a large and expensive server if it would be collecting dust from January until November? With the elasticity of the cloud it is possible to only rent one small server to handle the few lost people in July, and then gradually increase the server power once nearing Christmas. The same goes for app developers, when a tech-savvy kid writes an app he does not want nor need to invest in loads of servers, but once the app takes off he can order more computing power with a few mouse clicks.

In the past, if your application became popular and your systems or your infrastructure did
not scale you became a victim of your own success. Conversely, if you invested heavily and did not get popular, you
became a victim of your failure. By deploying applications in-the-cloud with just-in-time self-provisioning, you do not
have to worry about pre-procuring capacity for large-scale systems. This increases agility, lowers risk and lowers
operational cost because you scale only as you grow and only pay for what you use.    — Jinesh Varia, Amazon

Most consumers are familiar with the cloud as a way of securely backing up your data, and being able to access it from different devices. This is just one of the conveniences that the cloud has to offer. What is also something that has dramatically changed over the last years is how we access media, how Netflix started as a DVD rental service, it has now become a massive online streaming platform that produces its own Hollywood grade films. But the introduction of the cloud and shift from media to the online world has also brought down those who’ve failed to adopt. Music shops are a dying kind because Spotify has taken over, Blockbusters is an ancient relic because films are a few clicks away now instead of a couple of blocks.

Rain

A core service of cloud technology is the storage of data, your photos, texts, schedule, and all sorts of other files are often backed up in the cloud. Great, right? Well, yes, but not always. Backing up your data in the cloud essentially means trusting someone else with your data. The moment you click the “Back Up”  button your photo leaves your phone, heading with the speed of light through a nearby router towards a computer at an unknown location. Recent history has shown us plenty of times how it went wrong when data was not in your physical possession anymore, politically high-staked mails leaking, celebrity nudes going viral without consent, entire movies appearing online before even shown in cinemas after the studio’s been hacked. However, most often it is not the technology who’s to blame, as in security it is often the human who is the weakest link. Users losing their login credentials, employees who fell for phishing.

It can get worse, in 2017 the biggest cloud provider, Amazon Web Services, suffered a terrible downtime after a developer entered a wrong command during debugging, rendering thousands of sites and Internet of Things devices useless. Not being able to use your thermostat because of a server being down sounds dystopian, and we should really question how dependent we want to be on the internet.

Weather forecast, cloudy

The internet of things has become increasingly more present in our everyday life, and it is expected to boom, explode actually. And every one of those devices will be connected to the cloud as it’s core functionality. You shouldn’t be surprised if for Christmas 2025 the toothbrush you get sends all your brushing habits to Phillip’s servers.

Connected devices

With more and more things slowly drifting online, cloud services will be ever more important and tech companies like Amazon are well aware of that.

 

 

References

  • Jinesh Varia, Amazon, January 2011, “Architecting for the Cloud: Best Practices”, retrieved from https://docs.huihoo.com/amazon/aws/whitepapers/AWS-Cloud-Best-Practices-January-2011.pdf
  • Garraghan, PTownend, PM and Xu, J (2013) An Analysis of the Server Characteristics and Resource Utilization in Google Cloud. In: IC2E ’13 Proceedings of the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Cloud Engineering. IEEE , 124 – 131. ISBN 978-0-7695-4945-3
  • Amazon, 2017, “Summary of the Amazon S3 Service Disruption in the Northern Virginia (US-EAST-1) Region”, retrieved from https://aws.amazon.com/message/41926/
  • Microsoft, “what is cloud computing?”, retrieved from https://azure.microsoft.com/en-au/overview/what-is-cloud-computing/
  • Variety, November 29, 2014 , “Sony’s New Movies Leak Online Following Hack Attack”, retrieved from https://variety.com/2014/digital/news/new-sony-films-pirated-in-wake-of-hack-attack-1201367036/
  • Ericsson, “Internet of things forecast”, retrieved from https://www.ericsson.com/en/mobility-report/internet-of-things-forecast
  • Steve Ranger , Zdnet, January 24, 2018, “What is cloud computing, everything you need to know from public and private cloud to software as a service”, retrieved from https://www.zdnet.com/article/what-is-cloud-computing-everything-you-need-to-know-from-public-and-private-cloud-to-software-as-a/
  • Banner image was made by myself using own imagery and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ic_cloud_queue_48px.svg for the cloud icon

 

 

 

Emiel De Smidt
About Emiel De Smidt 3 Articles
Third year Computer Science and Engineering student at Delft University of Technology back home in the Netherlands. Currently studying at the University of Sydney for one semester.

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