Demystifying The Cloud: the what, the when, and the why

At this point, you’ve no doubt heard about “the cloud” and how powerful it can be for enterprise storage and operations. The cloud has now been widely used for years. Yet, when we ask someone to explain what exactly the cloud is, when and if his or her enterprise should use it, or the difference between public versus private clouds, we find that people still tend to respond like our friends from “Toy Story.”

What really is the cloud?

As nice as it might be to envision all of your documents swirling around in some invisible cloud overhead, the cloud itself is not actually a physical thing. It is more or less a metaphor for the Internet.

That being said, what runs the cloud is very much a physical object. The cloud is a network of servers, kind of like this:

Source: Flickr, Acoustic Dimensions

Whenever you store something “in the cloud,” that file actually “slides” through a wire to a server or multiple servers in some faraway place, where it then “lives.”

Different servers provide different functions. Some allow you to store and access data, like Instagram or Dropbox. Others provide online services, like Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft Office 365 — applications that were previously bought in box sets by enterprises but are now accessed via the Internet.

Essentially, the cloud transforms your computer into more of a terminal and less of a storage device itself. RAM and hard drive space don’t matter as much, because the cloud network can do the heavy lifting.

Did you know that there is a private Cloud and a public Cloud?

Private cloud hosting, also known as the enterprise cloud, is a single-tenant environment. It resides on your organization’s intranet or hosted data center and all of your enterprise’s data is protected behind a firewall. Private clouds can be designed to assure higher levels of security and can be customized for specific network, storage, and hardware performance. However, they require significantly more resources (time and money), because your organization must manage and maintain its cloud’s data center. For this reason, the private cloud is generally preferred by mid- to large-sized enterprises.

The primary difference between private and public clouds is that users are not responsible for any management of a public cloud hosting solution. The data is stored in the provider’s data center along with data belonging to many other enterprises. Thus, the provider takes responsibility for all management and maintenance of the data center. Examples are Amazon EC2 and Rackspace Cloud.

The public cloud tends to be appealing for many companies – particularly smaller enterprises – because it is typically less cost-intensive and reduces lead times in testing and deploying new products. That being said, while each enterprise’s data remains separate from others and security breaches are rare, you cannot control the security of a public cloud. This might be a deal breaker depending the nature of your data and/or industry.

So, you might ask, when do you move to the Cloud? And equally important, why?

In our experience, the primary reason to move your enterprise’s computing and storage to the cloud is a financial one. Historically, companies have had to buy their own hardware equipment, which depreciated in value and had to be repaired and replaced over time. Now with the cloud, companies only have to pay for the storage or services they use with a utility pricing model versus incurring the fixed cost for infrastructure necessary to provide it. This can save even a small business thousands of dollars per year.

Working on the cloud also allows your organization to be nimble and efficient. If you suddenly need access to more resources, you can quickly scale with the cloud. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it is equally easy to downsize or reduce resources on the cloud.

However, knowing the right time to move can be tricky. These are the primary factors we’ve found that tend to spur an organization’s move to the cloud:

  • New business or product launch
  • End of life stage for your hardware or software
  • Growing customer base
  • Data security concerns
  • Uncertainty in current and future storage/performance needs

It then follows, which Cloud should you go with?

Ultimately, it comes down to control and cost. Private clouds allow enterprises to control the server hardware and performance, as well as the cloud’s security measures. That being said, public clouds can be significantly less costly since they typically use a pay-as-you-go model and avoid the fixed cost of building and running a physical data center.

These days, we are seeing more and more clients choose a hybrid cloud approach, which mixes and matches the best elements of public and private clouds. This is a great option if your organization is hesitant about the security of the public cloud for sensitive data or if you want to explore the flexibility of the public cloud while still maintaining your legacy IT applications.

If you are on the fence about whether it is the right time for your organization to migrate to the cloud and which solution is right for you, we suggest you seek the opinion of an expert in the subject matter (your MSP or local service provider).