Cloud Computing Basics: The Internet as a Utility

It seems like every time I turn on the television, I see a commercial for something "in the cloud." There used to be commercials from a well-known company that proclaimed in a super-hero-like fashion, "To the cloud!" And most recently, we've been hearing quite a bit about the iCloud.

I'd be understating the obvious if I said that cloud computing is the latest buzzword. However, I think there are a number of misconceptions about what the cloud really is, so over the course of the next couple of weeks, I'm going to help clarify the basics of cloud computing.

Power Stations and The Grid

To begin a discussion of cloud computing, let's draw some analogies from the world of public utilities. Take for example electric power distribution. When electric utilities were developed, power stations were first built in high population areas. Buildings and then entire neighborhoods were connected to the stations, and then the stations themselves were interconnected, beginning the creation of what we know today as "the grid." This robust network of power allows us to turn on the lights and never have to wonder where the power is coming from. This is the essence of cloud computing—a network that serves up what you need without you having to worry about where it came from.

More Pipe Than Power

Now consider the Internet. Instead of centralized stations, the first years of the Internet consisted of network growth. From the first network connections of the 1960s until recently, the Internet has been "more pipe than power," serving more as a network of connections than a distribution grid. To draw an analogy, imagine a situation in which individuals connected their own personal power generators to create a shared power grid. This is not a viable way to distribute power resources, but for sharing bits and bytes, it works fine. However, something was missing from this picture—namely, the equivalent of the "power station."

A New Utility Is Born

Roughly ten years ago, the large and growing network of "data pipes" that was the Internet began to transform. Advances in technology enabled this transformation, but what really drove it was the fact that the Internet was finally becoming a true utility, taking over much of the role of traditional telecommunications. The Internet is now supporting the operation of central "power plants"—plants with names such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others. Internet traffic is projected to continue doubling every two years, and the driver will be the larger and larger role it will play as the information utility.

A New Breed of Applications Emerges

In addition to the "Internet power stations" that deliver communications and consumer applications, we are seeing the emergence of browser-based applications designed for business. Software applications for business have traditionally been delivered as discs or downloads installed on company servers and workstations. With the Internet becoming an application utility, this model is changing. More and more software can be accessed online with nothing more than a subscription login and a device that has one of the common web browsers. And these are not light-weight "apps"—these are powerful enterprise systems for accounting, financial management, project management, HR, and more.

Accessing and processing all your business information may never be quite as easy as flipping a switch, but browser-based software (a.k.a. cloud computing) is going to bring us closer to that idea. Has your company adopted any browser-based business software or do you plan to?

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