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The cloud computing system is administered by a central server, which follows a set of rules, called protocols | Photo source Pixabay

Tech Explained: Cloud Computing

Computing & Tech

What exactly is the cloud and what are the advantages of keeping your data there?

First it was floppy disks, then CD-Rom and USB flash drives. Now, file sharing and saving can be done without a physical storage unit by using the cloud. Once uploaded to the cloud, you can access and work on your files from anywhere at any time. So, what exactly is the cloud and how does it work?

What is the cloud?

The cloud is essentially the Internet. Like the Internet, information in the cloud is held on physical servers that are maintained by providers like Apple, Amazon or Google. When you save something to the cloud, you are really saving it to a server located on a massive server farm run by the service provider. Because the information is not located on any single hard drive, it can be accessed from any device and downloaded onto almost any device. 

A cloud computing system is made up of two parts — the computer or computer network and application (the front end) that is used to access the cloud system, and the servers and data storage systems that make up the cloud service (the back end). Front end and back end are connected together through a network (the Internet). 

The cloud computing system is administered by a central server, which follows a set of rules, called protocols. In order to allow all of the computers in the network to communicate, the central server uses a type of software called middleware. Cloud computing systems also have backup storage devices to prevent loss of data in case of a breakdown.

Models of cloud computing

Cloud computing is currently provided in several ways. These include the Software as a Service model, where users access the product through a browser. Gmail is an example of this. Businesses often use a Platform as a Service (PaaS) model, where a PaaS developer will create a platform for use by a particular company. 

There is also the Infrastructure as a Service model, such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure, where cloud providers offer an entire infrastructure of resources, network connectivity, and security compliance that enterprises can customise however they see fit.

Advantages of cloud computing

Because information in the cloud is not stored a single hard drive, it can be accessed by multiple users at the same time. This makes it easier for people to work remotely and enables faster exchange of information without reliance on email. The cloud also allows users to store almost unlimited amounts of data because they are no longer limited by the space on their hard drive. It is also easy to update software via cloud computing, as the service provider does it for you.

In addition to accessing stored files from any device, the cloud also allows users to access software from almost any device. Gone are the days of purchasing and uploading software. The cloud allows users to buy subscriptions to access only the software they need, when they need it, saving money.

Cloud computing even aids in the democratisation of computing by it eliminating the need for expensive hardware. Because the software is being run from the cloud, the actual device used to access the hardware only needs to be able to access the Internet and run the middleware. This means that even very sophisticated software can be run from a relatively cheap computer. 

For scientists and researchers, who often need to process large amounts of data, the cloud offers another benefit. Instead of investing in very expensive hardware, the data can be processed by the cloud system, which can take advantage of the processing power of all available computers on the back end, significantly speeding up the work.

Disadvantages of cloud computing

The main disadvantages to cloud computing are risks to privacy and security. A cloud computing service is a third party, and one which is being accessed by users from all over the world. This may increase the chance that unauthorised users can gain access to users’ data. However, cloud providers offer password protection and use sophisticated data encryption technology. 

If all of your data is stored in the cloud, then you run the risk, however small, of losing everything should some calamity strike the provider. For this reason, many providers keep their backup systems in a separate location. Of course, the cloud also relies on access to a reliable Internet connection. If you live in or travel to places where this is difficult, then you won’t be able to access whatever you have stored in the cloud.

The future of cloud computing

Some believe that in the future almost every business will operate primarily from the cloud; for others, there will always be a place for on-premise computing. It may be that in the future, the cloud will become more of a platform for delivering innovative technologies and services that are too costly to run elsewhere. This includes technologies like application programming interfaces, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. 

Already, though, some applications are moving on from cloud computing to ideas such as the decentralised cloud computing model called collective computing and edge computing. One thing is almost certain: the future of computing will increasingly be located in the cloud.