What is the Cloud?

In order to get a full understanding of the issues related to security in cloud computing we’ll need to make sure we starting from a solid foundation and that we’re talking the same language about the cloud. As is often the case when it comes to new technology some people mean different things when they talk about the cloud so I think it would be a great idea for us to sync up our thoughts before we go any further. I am personally a big fan of telling stories or using metaphors. So, I’m going to try to answer the question “what is the cloud” via a home building metaphor. So let us see if we can figure this out!

Let’s pretend we’re building a new house. This house will have water heaters, one or more air conditioning systems, light fixtures, a kitchen with an oven and microwave… you know, the typical house stuff with LOTS of electrical needs. We’re going to need some way to power all of these things right? One way of making sure we will have enough power is to buy a bunch of solar panels and generators to generate our own electricity. As demand requirements change over the course of the day / months we’ll find that sometimes we have lots of extra power and sometimes we might run short. For example, as it gets warmer outside we may find that we don’t quite have enough power to run the AC with our current system. What do we do? I guess we bite the bullet and go buy another generator in order to have enough electricity available to run the air conditioner. We may find that we can’t run both the microwave and the air conditioner at the same time without buying even more power generating devices. We quickly find that the problem with trying to generate our own power is that we have to plan ahead and have enough generators on hand to handle the maximum load possible even though the maximum is rarely needed. Adding to the frustration is that we have to keep those generators on hand (they have to “sit” somewhere). Plus, they’re very important to us so we would be wise to to and test them and maintain them regularly. Doing this extra testing and maintenance costs us valuable time that we could spend golfing or something instead. All of these factors make it very difficult, not to mention financially painful, to try to maintain our entire power infrastructure under our own roof.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some sort of way to have access to virtually unlimited electricity that was available on demand and that you would only have to pay for what you use? Oh, that’s right, there is! We can connect to the “electric cloud” (we normally call this our ‘utility company’) and they’ll generate all the power we need while at the same time only charging us for what we use!

Basically, cloud computing involves treating computing as a utility just like electricity or water. If we need more storage for our files then we just buy “storage space” and the cloud provider magically makes more space available to us without us ever having to go buy new hard disks or do anything technically difficult. If we decide we need more computing power as our business grows and our website begins to become bogged down then we can just buy more computing power from the cloud and we see changes in minutes without us having to go buy a new server, install the software, configure it just right, etc. Maybe we find ourselves needing to hire a new employee. Normally this comes with needing to buy new software, install it on their machine, configure it, and so on. But if we are using software hosted in the cloud then there’s a really good chance that we won’t have to do anything other than add a new user to our cloud. We’ll start paying for the new user, and they will  immediately be able to log in to the cloud via nothing more than their own web browser and immediately have access to the information they need without management or IT having to do anything difficult!

In that last paragraph I mentioned a couple of important sectors of cloud computing without giving them a name. So let’s break that paragraph down real quick. We’ll name and discuss the two distinct types of “services” or “utilities” mentioned. Each of these are typically handled by a different cloud computing provider (or at least a different segment) of cloud computing.

If we need more storage then we just buy “storage space” and the cloud provider magically makes more space available to us without us ever having to go buy new hard disks or do anything technically difficult. If we decide we need more computing power as our business grows and our website begins to become bogged down then we can just buy more computing power from the cloud and we see changes in minutes without us having to go buy a new server, install the software, configure it just right, etc.

This is an example of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). This is often a huge part of the savings in both time and money of getting into cloud computing. You can increase from 2 a CPU box to a 32 CPU box by simply paying more and not having to do anything else! This is often really powerful when your computing needs are very seasonal and you can predict when you will want more computing power. You can also add more storage space as necessary with the simple click of a button… no more having to buy extra drives and install them when you’re running low on space!

Maybe we find ourselves needing to hire a new employee. Normally this comes with needing to buy new software, install it on their machine, configure it, and so on. But if we are using software hosted in the cloud then there’s a really good chance that we won’t have to do anything other than add a new user to our cloud.

This one is a little bit IaaS, but it is also Software as a Service (SaaS). If you use cloud based software such as email from goodle and productivity tools from google or office365 then you can literally remove a TON of work from your IT staff. When a new employee is hired you just add them to your account and they immediately have access to all the software they need via the cloud provider’s portal.

Hopefully this discussion has given you a better idea about what cloud computing is all about as understanding “what is the cloud” is extremely important to understanding how you can secure yourself and your data when you use it. You can check out our separate sections the describe Infrastructure as a Service and Software as a Service if you’re interested in seeing some more examples. Otherwise, you can move on to our discussion of elements of data / computer security.