What is the Cloud?

This is part one of a three-part series about how the cloud impacts business:

What is the Cloud?

To the dismay of some networking purists (like this onethis one, and this one), the term "cloud" is here to stay. Sure, it's a somewhat arbitrary buzzword. But it simply and effectively communicates a powerful idea (more on that later).

Simple is good. Simple and clear is better. Unfortunately, "cloud" describes an idea that is almost as nebulous as the word itself: according to a survey from CEA, 36% of U.S. adults don't really know what "cloud" means, even though 96% of them use cloud services – perhaps without even realizing it. 

So what is the cloud?

The word came about because of lots and lots of pictures that look something like this:


These pictures have been around for a long time, long before "cloud" hit buzzword status. At its core, cloud is really just describing a network. More specifically: a cloud is the system of pathways in a communications network.

Once you have a global, interconnected system of networks, i.e. the Internet, then you can have the cloud. 

The idea behind those pictures is very simple, and very logical: networks are complex. The bigger they are, the more complex they are. Only the masochists among us (i.e. networking professionals) need to understand the intricacies of how a packet of information goes from one end of a vast network to the other. (I want clean water to come out of my faucet when I turn it on; I'll leave it to plumbers to figure out how it gets there.)

That's the idea behind the word. But there's a subtle difference in how we're actually using it now. 

What We Really Mean by "The Cloud"

Applications that used to live on local devices now live … out there somewhere. That's what we're talking about when we refer to the cloud. Cloud computing is when we interact with information out on the Internet instead of using software that's right there on our computers.

It used to be that we kept our information – photos, music, documents, data – on local, physical equipment (e.g. disks, CDs, hard drives). We processed information with software that was living on local equipment. Even when everyone started using the Internet and information was getting pushed out across those networks – across the cloud – we weren't really using the cloud the way we typically mean it now. The bulk of that information was still being processed and stored on local devices. Now much of that information is moving into the cloud.


Email is a helpful example: my Gmail account is in the cloud, but I first learned to use email through software on my home computer. Even though email always passed information over the Internet (obviously), I really only used an Internet connection to send or receive messages. All my emails were stored on my computer; I could read, write, and delete emails without an active Internet connection. With my Gmail account I do all of the processing through a Web interface; everything lives out on the cloud.

Email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Flickr, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Dropbox, Evernote, iCloud, and lots of Google's offerings (e.g. Google Docs) are just a few of the most well-known cloud applications. You could pretty much spend all day, every day floating around in the cloud now.

Ok, but where does my information actually go? What's the question mark in that diagram?

All of that information is stored and processed on servers; the question mark represents a server.


Fundamentally, a server is just a computer that is being used to run, or host, a service. Your desktop computer could function as a server. But typically when we talk about servers we mean large, specialized computers that are built to host applications. Many servers sit in huge server farms that have extensive systems in place to ensure 24/7 availability: advanced security, robust cooling systems, redundant power, fire suppression, backups for everything, etc.

So while the term "cloud" seems to suggest that information is floating out in the middle of nowhere, the data is actually being stored in a grounded, physical location. When I update my Facebook status, that piece of information is pushed to a physical machine in a server farm like this one in Santa Clara, California:


That's the cloud. Not so fluffy, is it? While I can certainly see why many have a problem with the term "cloud" – it does fit a bit awkwardly – there's not really a logical replacement out there that communicates the same powerful ideas.

And the cloud is incredibly powerful. I'll talk about the benefits of the cloud in part 2.