Let’s look at what the cloud is and how cloud services can help your business to maximise the potential of this increasingly popular Internet technology.
Cloud is one of the most heavily used words in the modern world of IT and is used to describe many things, related to infrastructure, platforms and services online.
Practically, the cloud refers to the Internet and services delivered over this vast network. This is actually nothing really new, as network computing has been around since the 1960’s but the actual term “Cloud Computing” was originally coined by Google ex CEO Eric Schmidt in 2006 when introducing the term to an industry conference. Also the way we use networked computing has evolved into a sophisticated set of online services.
To properly describe cloud, I think it’s a good idea to break it down into the three main types of cloud services to get a clear picture of what the cloud is.
Types of cloud services explained
Infrastructure as a service (IAAS)
IAAS is physical infrastructure offered as a service over the web, instead of having that physical infrastructure in your office, home or premises. This is usually a virtual private server (VPS) or computing instance which acts like a regular desktop workstation or server computer, but running over the web.
Rather than being on one server, the underlying infrastructure is many physical servers clustered together to create an underlying platform which the virtual server operates within. Using the virtual server is like using a regular server, but pieces of it are spread across tens, hundreds or even thousands of physical servers to reduce reliance on any one physical piece of hardware. I guess you can see it like your virtual computer living in the matrix, not ever knowing it is part of a much bigger system. If a hard disk or power supply stops working, the cloud virtual server keeps operating without interruption.
This is what differentiates cloud computing from the previous stage of virtual computing, in that previously you would have virtual machines living on one machine physical machine. If that physical machine experienced a hardware fault, you would need to reimage the virtual machine. But now these resources are spread across many and can be resized or reconfigured to huge proportions, often without even restarting the virtual machine operating system.
Typically, a cloud provider will allow you to quickly build your virtual server using a simple click and point interface, with options to choose your operating system (OS), for example Windows Server or different flavours of Linux. You can also choose your processing chip (CPU), your memory, (RAM), your hard disk storage (HDD), and in some cases even attach a virtual video card, or graphics processing unit (GPU).
Quite often you can simply migrate an entire physical server onto the cloud using tools like Cloud Endure, or also migrate existing virtual server instances from systems like VMWare. Picking something up from an existing running system, as it is, is often referred to as “lift and shift”. To prevent downtime, you can keep the existing system running during a cloud migration, continually synchronise the data, then simply switch to your new cloud server when you are ready to do so. This is called a “blue green” migration.
The space for IAAS is continuing to heat up and Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services all offer competitive products in this market.
In terms of billing, there are usually savings in moving infrastructure to the cloud, as you only pay for what you use by the minute and can scale up and down easily, without having to commit to yearly contracts for dedicated servers like you would have previously. Also, you no longer need to lay out capital expenditure for physical hardware for a data centre, or your own premise. Not to mention electricity and security.
Some of the cloud providers also offer additional discounts if you do commit to fixed terms, or automatically apply these discounts if you simply use the server for more than a certain number of days in a month, like Google Cloud for instance.
In terms of management and updates, the infrastructure is all managed by your cloud provider and in most cases can be performed without any downtime. However, similar to a co-located, on-premise and virtual machines, cloud server software still needs to be maintained and upgraded by a server management team. This is not usually the cloud provider themselves, who prefers to stick to the physical infrastructure service provision.
Uses for IAAS are diverse for business and IAAS is often the first stage of a cloud journey. IAAS is usually the easiest way to simply get what you have and move it to the cloud to get started. As long as the users have a reliable internet connection, then pretty much most physical servers can be moved to the cloud and will achieve instant savings and reliability by doing so.
Platform as a service (PAAS)
PAAS goes one level above IAAS, in that the components of your software systems are moved to the cloud to be fully managed their by your cloud provider, instead of the business having to manage them, themselves within an IAAS environment.
An example of this is Google’s CloudSQL service. Many of the most common web based software systems on the web, use the open source MySQL (or recently MariaDB) database. This database is the critical storage component of WordPress, Magento and Drupal website systems, just to name a few.
Usually, you would need to manage your own MySQL server, often on the same server as the WordPress website. However, the service CloudSQL offers a fully managed, cloud based MySQL server which is completely backed up, upgraded and maintained by Google. You can see that in this case, the entire system is not managed by the cloud provider, but the one component is taken off the hands of the admin team, to free them up to maintain other services.
Other examples of PAAS are all the components that Google offers developers to connect to and use via application programming interfaces or API’s, like Google Cloud Storage (GCS), Google Maps, Google Places, Google, ReCaptcha etc. Rather than having to pay developers to build and maintain these tools, they are provided as online platforms for developers to hook into, which are fully maintained, supported and upgraded automatically.
Payment gateway systems like Square, Pin Payments and Stripe, are other great examples of PAAS, as these just provide a component of the overall system that you can use, rather than the entire system.
The advantage of using PAAS, is getting access to fully managed service components for your overall system, without giving up full control. Usually only paying for the number of times you use the service and again not having the up front capital expenditure of having to build the service with your own development team. However, you will still often need developers to connect to the service and make it work with your existing systems, also to update these connections to make sure they still function correctly.
PAAS is often the next step from IAAS, after you have migrated your system from physical or older virtual infrastructure, the next phase is to look at what you can move to scalable, fully managed services, so you can avoid ongoing development costs and also start to make your system scalable, as often PAAS provides services which are common bottlenecks in your software systems, like databases and hard disk storage.
Software as a service (SAAS)
SAAS refers to holus bolus, complete, fully managed systems running on the web, usually (and hopefully) on cloud based infrastructure which are provided as a service.
These are complete systems that you would normally pay a monthly fee per user, or per action to use for your business.
Advantages of using SAAS software are that there are usually very few costs associated with getting started, you only pay for the plan that suits you, and all of the support, management and updates are fully managed by the SAAS provider. Also, often SAAS software provides connectivity to other SAAS software so you can extend it to link systems together and automate your processes.
The downside of going fully SAAS is that you could lose control of your features and possibly your data, as you need to continue paying the monthly fees to keep things running. It can sometimes be difficult to switch over once your business is fully entrenched in one tool. However, depending on the tool and what it does for your business, these tools can sometimes be interchangeable too, so selecting the appropriate tools is critical.
Cloud Based Services are wide and varied and are not going away in a hurry. It seems that the cloud phase of computing has only just started, especially with the advantages being so immediate and compelling. These advantages are not just cost savings, but also in offering functionality and reliability that hasn’t been seen before.
Running your own systems directly on Google and Microsoft infrastructure will be a huge leap in productively, reliability and performance for most businesses today. However, not one type of cloud service is a quick fix solution. Pretty much all migrations to the cloud are made up of a carefully planned mix of cloud services from different providers a professional partner to assess your needs, plan your cloud roadmap and assist with deployment is critical to make the most of what this new frontier in computing has to offer.
If you are exploring the cloud for your business, we’d love to hear from you. Snapfrozen assists many businesses with planning their cloud strategy. Contact us today for a free no obligation chat about your online business requirements.