What is Cloud Computing?

Do you use GMail, Google Docs, Dropbox, Facebook, CrashPlan or iCloud? If so, then you use cloud computing. It’s not essential that you have an in-depth understanding of cloud computing, but here’s a brief overview.

Cloud Computing is often misused as a synonym for the Internet itself.  This is an incorrect use of the term. However, the term was inspired by the common use of a picture of a cloud to represent the complex infrastructure of the Internet in diagrams. Consequently, this incorrect use is somewhat understandable.

Broadly, cloud computing refers to computing resources that are offered as a service rather then a product. More specifically, these cloud computing services also need to meet certain characteristics including wide access, measured service, as well as pooling of storage space and computing horsepower.

Let me illustrate this with an example. In the past, if you wanted to use a word processor you would typically buy a product, like Microsoft Word, and install it on your Mac. In a cloud computing world you might, instead, sign up for a free (or paid) service, like Google Docs, and use its word processor. Google Docs is broadly available and behind the scenes Google’s system can bring more computers online to handle surges in customer use of  the service.

Cloud computing has become possible because it’s cost-effective for companies to build huge data centers where computing and software can be provided remotely at massive scale and rented out, like a utility service. Other factors include the lower prices of computers and smartphones and the growing pervasiveness of fast Internet connections.

For those interested in a more in-depth description and definition of cloud computer I direct you to this excellent Tidbits article on cloud computing. It covers the essential characteristics, service models, and deployment models for cloud computing in more detail. With this basic understanding of cloud computing, we’re ready to look at Apple’s iCloud service. We’ll address the question, What is iCloud? Look for this in a future Tech Tip.

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