You've probably heard about the cloud, but do you really know what it is, and how it can help your business.
The term cloud can be used to mean a number of different things. In terms of home computing it often means storing data and running applications that are based on internet servers, rather than on your hard drive. For example you might store all your photos on Google Drive, which means that they are held on secure servers in a Google data centre. You might use the web version of Office 365 which are versions of the main office tools (Word, Excel etc) that run entirely in the browser. These are both examples of cloud computing.
But what is so special about these services that makes them 'cloud based'? After all we've had the internet for years - what's new about the cloud? To understand this it helps to look at the cloud from a business perspective.
For example let's imagine you are running an e-commerce website selling umbrellas. It is running along nicely on your own server, making a few 100 sales a day, when all of a sudden there is a sever weather warning. Suddenly your website is hit by 100,000 visitors at once, and of course it crashes because your server isn't up to the job of supporting that many visitors at the same time.
Now instead of hosting your website on your own server you instead hosted it in the cloud using one of the major cloud hosting services such as Microsoft Azure, or Amazon Web Services. Then when your website is suddenly hit by all those visitors the cloud magically spins up 10 more servers and replicates your site onto all of them. All your visitors are happy, they don't even notice the difference.
The difference between conventional hosting, where you manage your own hosting arrangements and cloud hosting where a cloud service provider manages your hosting for you is quite profound. In the case of traditional hosting you are responsible for the hardware, you are tied to a single piece of hardware (i.e. your server). In the case of cloud hosting servers are a service provided by a cloud hosting provider. You can use as many or as few servers as you need depending on the load on your website.
This is fundamentally what distinguishes the cloud from other internet services. Cloud services are scalable and on demand. You are not tied to your own hardware, your own hard drive, or any particular constraints on demand (although of course the more resources you use the higher the cost).
Getting all of this to work takes a bit of setting up of course. Your website will need to be modified to work well on a cloud hosting platform. But if your site is subject to wide variations in demand then reducing the amount of servers required during quiet times can save you money.
Webfuel make use of cloud hosting services in a number of our applications. This can vary from running an entire application in the cloud, to using cheap cloud based storage for some types of data used by an application. It is important to realise that the cloud is not a magic fix to all your IT woes. It is a very powerful concept and a useful tool for solving certain hard to solve problems around the need to cope with high demand or high storage requirements. Overtime we will probably see more and more services migrate to the cloud, as the economics of scale will inevitable make it more and more attractive for a wider range of business processes.
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