Despite many analogies that have spread on the Web regarding "Cloud Computing," the notion and term came from a very literal illustration.
As a legacy Network Technician, originally trained in Telephony, I always had an intrinsic understanding of what these ground breaking companies such as Google and Amazon meant by "Cloud Computing," because I had been drawing "clouds" on network diagrams for years. The clouds I drew on these diagrams literally looked like the cartoon clouds that you and I drew in crayon, on our fifth-grade art school papers. Often times, I was putting these cartoon clouds on diagrams that mapped out million dollar systems!
The concept is this: You stand on one end of my graphing paper (representing your house), and I stand on the other end (representing my house, or a coffee shop with WiFi maybe). I'm going to shoot you an email, and then draw its course in pencil, on my graph paper. When I press "Send" on my computer, the pencil line is going to connect from my computer to the flashy wireless router here, then it connects to the Internet company's modem on my side, and then it runs abruptly into a cartoon cloud in the middle of my page.
In the same manner that you used to draw an arrow through a heart, from the other side of that cloud my line will pop out. It connects to your Internet provider's modem, then the line connects to your flashy wireless router, then the line connects to your computer. Now you're reading my email.
The Cloud is Like an Ellipsis
The cloud represents all the technological crap in between! You might be in Paris, and I might be in New York. Inside of that cloud could be satellite jumps, microwave communication jumps, gigantic ocean-span fiber optic jumps, or good old copper wires, but ultimately it gets to your Internet provider, and then routes to you. You don't really care what goes on in the Cloud, as long as your Internet light is lit on your modem.
To emphasize this point, I reference Newton's Telcom Dictionary, from the 17th Updated and Expanded Edition. Harry Newton is a brilliant and entertaining technician. He founded LAN (now Network) Magazine, and a crap load others after that. His work is considerd the "Bible" of tech terms in the IT field. If you reference it to look up the word "telephone," you will find out that it is:
- The invention of the devil.
- Telephone in London cockney rhyming slang is dog 'n' bone, bone obviously rhyming with phone, In most cases of cockney the rhyming word is dropped, leaving just dog.
- The most intrusive device ever invented.
- The biggest time waster of all time, as in: 'what did you do all day?' 'Nothing. Just spent the day on the phone.'
- Also a truly remarkable invention. Here are the eight things a telephone actually does...
In 2001 I began my IT career trained as a "Telephone Technician" for the U.S. Coast Guard, where network infrastructure was a large part of my responsibilities. Within that, we worked on telephone networks too, and this definition has since amused me!
In seriousness though, the 17th Edition of Newton's was published in 2001, way before Google, Amazon, and other companies started coining the "cloud computing" phrase. His accurate definition of "Cloud," from 2001 is:
"Beginning with AT&T's BDN (Bell Data Network)...the data network was depicted as a 'cloud.' The user data was presented at one side of the carrier cloud, and was delivered at the other side. What went on inside the cloud was obscured from view. The thinking behind this heavily conceptual sell was that the user needn't be concerned with what went on inside the carrier network."
AT&T's Bell Data Network did not take off, but the concept of the "cloud" was a huge success. Years later, I was drawing them on graphing paper. And today, you reference the idea when you talk about computing from distances, with redundancy.
[EDIT: Harry Newton pointed out to me he's now on the 26th Edition, which is linked from the Amazon link above. He updated his definition of "Cloud Computing" today, and I'm shamelessly thrilled to think that I inspired that in some part ;) You can follow Harry on his blog, In Search of the Perfect Investment, which covers technology and finance.]
What Does "Cloud Computing" Mean Today?
Today, as it's been coined, "cloud computing" suggests two things, but they both are related to the same cartoon cloud I've been drawing on graphing paper, and they are both benefits to our businesses.
- The Cloud implies ubiquitous and anywhere access. If you are using a web based email platform like Gmail, Yahoo!, or Hotmail, you are familiar with this. You can check your email from a cyber cafe in Puerto Rico, or from a friend's house in Colorado. It's available because it's Web based; it's in the Cloud. It's not saved on just one computer...which leads into the next.
- The Cloud implies redundancy and distributed work. Before cloud computing, we were very much individual computers. If your computer crashed, you lost a whole lot of data! It was gone because that stuff was not on any other computer! You should have been backing it up, but you probably weren't. Cloud computing provides an answer to that. Google doesn't just have one bank of computers in Paulo Alto, for example, they have computer banks all over the world, and each computer shares a bit of the work load.
The Cloud becomes truly powerful in numbers. It's not one super computer, it's a networked, massive organization of computers that can out compute what any one super computer could ever imagine!
What Does it Matter to My Business?
The beauty of cloud computing for us, the business owners, is its complexity, lending to our simplicity in systems. I personally run and/or consult for seven businesses. I do not have to run an Email Exchange Server in one of my closets because I rely on Google Apps. I don't run a powerful server with shared network apps because I have Google Docs, and Dropbox, and Evernote, and countless other Web based applications that provide redundancy and accessibility for me and my partners.
It answers the question of, "What kind of server do I need for my business?" You probably don't need one anymore!
Backing up data is still crucial for the small business owners and entrepreneurs, but cloud computing is lending a hand to that also! If you have something really important to your business, you can email it to yourself to stash a copy in the "cloud." If you want to update everyone on a project, or you just want to make sure you don't lose a note, you can save a document to your Dropbox and know that it's available through the cloud.
It doesn't matter how that document is actually available to you. In all honesty, we don't really care. It just matters that it is available to you. That's what the Cloud represents: all the mechanics that go into making your data available to you as an end user.
The Cloud is the magic you don't want to understand. When you ask for 364 divided by 4, from your calculator, do you really care how it gets you the answer of 91, as long as the answer is accurate? The cloud is everything that calculator did to get you your answer.
More important to your business though, the Cloud offers you redundancy (mitigating the risk of losing all your data), and accessibility, allowing you to access your data when you're on the road, or maybe just when you don't feel like going into the office.
The cloud is good for you, but it is certainly not a mystery. Embrace it, but don't get hung up on elaborate descriptions of what it means to be in the "Cloud." Focus on running your business, but be sure to utilize the cloud to your advantage!
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