Does anyone know what the cloud is?

Published: 25th June 2012
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The Cloud has become one of the most overused buzzwords in IT. We tend to know what it means to consumers – it’s the kind of thing that Apple does so well such as online backup and synchronisation. But when it comes to hosting, there is a strange secret about the Cloud: no one can tell you exactly what it is.

Try asking anyone for a definition and you either get a pretty vague response or something too obscure to be useful. This has led to a great deal of abuse: the Cloud is regularly used by IT companies to mean “its whatever I want to sell you today”. A new phrase, Cloud Washing, has entered the IT vocabulary to denote anyone rebranding the same old stuff as Cloud but without true Cloud functionality. Let’s try to shed some light.

Is it this?

After three years and 15 drafts the US National Institute of Standards issued its “final” definition of the Cloud in October last year as follows:

“Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

So now we know. It’s basically good stuff that does a lot of er, stuff really well. As a definition, it’s technically about right. But for Netscan customers, we need a user-friendly definition that relates specifically to what the Cloud can do for hosting.

Is it new stuff?

Some people will try to have you understand that the Cloud means anything that’s on the web. Not really. It is much better than that. The idea of the Cloud has existed in the imagination of internet visionaries for many years but it is only in the last few years that a number of advances in technology have come together to allow a paradigm-shift. They have enabled us to configure hardware and software in new ways that dramatically improve their functionality and make the Cloud not only a viable option but a preferable one. So, if the term Cloud is to mean anything useful, it has to incorporate the fact that it uses these new developments to do new things in new ways.

What are these new technologies? Fast and cheap broadband that enables devices to communicate with remote servers; virtualisation that enables data to be stored in more effective ways; cheaper hardware for storage; and self-healing software/hardware configurations that reduce or eliminate downtime.

Take storage for example: we have replaced our old servers with smaller specialist servers called hypervisors that contain no storage. They link to external storage contained in vast arrays of discs stored in Storage Area Networks (SANs). The server’s job is now to monitor these SANs and automatically reallocate resources as needed. They rebuild web sites that fail within minutes. Result: serious improvements in performance and reliability and the ability to support an infinite amount of traffic

How will you feel the benefit?

Two examples to illustrate the main benefits of the Cloud in hosting:

Scalability:

If you have been using shared hosting, you may have noticed that it sometimes runs slow. This is because it is a compromise designed to provide some of the benefits of remote hosting without a dedicated server: resources such as CPU, memory, disc space and bandwidth may be shared between as s many as 2-300 users, all on the same server. If one user overloads the server, all users will suffer from low speed or downtime. This doesn’t happen on the Cloud because resources are no longer limited to the finite resources inside a single server. They are allocated dynamically as needed and are as close to infinite as you can possibly get.

High Availability:

Hardware is mechanical. Anything mechanical fails eventually. Discs fail a lot more than manufacturers would have you know. We have learned to cope with this by using failover or redundancy systems. So for example, any decent pre-cloud server will have a series of discs arranged so that they can keep you working until a bad drive can be replaced. The Cloud takes this to a new level. Your website is not hosted inside a single server anymore. Instead your data is hosted on a cluster of servers, connected to work as one. You are no longer dependant on a single machine. If one server fails, another server in the cluster becomes active and takes over the process of running your data and processes, so there’s virtually no downtime. For the more technically-minded, think of it as a kind of grid system where the parts can be accessed through many alternative paths. If one path becomes unavailable, other paths kick in automatically. Each path not only has a. complete set of all components but a backup set as well to maintain normal functioning. The grid includes specialist servers that rebuild a failed web site in minutes. As Bill Gates might have said - pretty neat! What all this means is seriously improved reliability.

So what is the Cloud?

If you go back to the NIST definition at the start of this article, it should now make a little more sense. We have simplified it to read:

"on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that are rapidly and automatically scalable “

At Netscan we have spent a lot of time putting together our new hardware platform. We refer to it as true or real Cloud simply to distinguish it from a lot of old kit that is still out there masquerading as the’ Cloud’.

Hopefully, in a few years, everyone will be using the new technology. Then perhaps, we can stop talking about the Cloud.

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