What is Cloud Computing, Anyway? Clarifying The Nebulous Nature of Cloud Computing

You’ve probably heard about “the Cloud” and cloud computing, but what is it? What does it do? Check out this post from one of our resident experts to learn more.


One of the oaths you take in order to graduate with a degree in computer science is the acceptance that you will be providing technical support for all of your family, friends, and especially well-educated pets from now until the day you die.  It is for this reason that I experience a certain anxiety whenever my mother appears on caller ID. My mother is something of an expert in getting a computer to behave badly:  She still has an “@aol” email address, she clicks away system alerts the way one might compete for Olympic gold in whack-a-mole and she is one of the very few people who—armed with naught but a power button—could not get the computer to turn off.

A little over a year ago, she called to ask whether I thought she should move the family computer into the cloud.

It’s hard to fault her for the misunderstanding. After all, the whole tech industry appropriates the term for any and all kinds of online activity. “Cloud” has become a shortcut slogan that we’ve all accepted as a pat-on-the-head prefix for “complicated tech stuff made simple that you’ll understand one day when you’re older.” Well happy birthday to knowledge, because today is that day.

In this post, we’ll figure out what the cloud actually is, as well as go over some brief history and check out some of its capabilities. Let’s start with how it got here:


How the Cloud came to be

As you may recall, throughout the mid to late nineties, online tech companies were practically springing up overnight in what became known as “the dot-com bubble.” In order to keep their services up and running, these companies had to purchase a great deal of computer hardware—everyone was trying to be the next Amazon, after all. This, however, was no cheap proposition. To account for unpredictable spikes in visitor traffic, a huge amount of that hardware sat idling for most of the time. It was the equivalent of buying a car for a two-day business trip, and then leaving that car at the airport because you might have to fly back in six months.

The commercial practice of virtualization changed that. Generally speaking, virtualization is the idea of taking one very real computer and sectioning pieces of it off to pretend to be several smaller computers.  It’s the same principle behind slicing a pizza—you take a whole and break it into more usable portions. Better still, if you become full after eating just half a slice of pizza, virtualization is able to take the leftover half and divvy it up amongst the other slices instantly. While the idea of virtualization has been around since the sixties, it took some advancements in technology and the clear need of a cheaper solution to advance virtualization to the point of economic viability.

With virtualization on their side, all of a sudden, companies didn’t need to buy and maintain huge mainframe computers to handle  the ebbs and flows of internet traffic.  They could sign up for a service that would afford them as much or as little computing resources (or pizza) as they needed, and only charge them for what was actually used (or eaten). And thus was born The Cloud.  In short, a Cloud computer is any pool of computer resources that can be quickly partitioned and tailored to fit the needs of a given user.


What the Cloud can help us do

Thanks to virtualization, cloud solutions frequently provide for some very helpful features.  Snapshotting, for example, is the ability to take a complete inventory of the current state of things on a machine. Once you have a snapshot, you can, at any time in the future, plug it back into the machine and recreate your data exactly as it was when you took the snapshot.  If you’re trying to set up ten different computers with, say, identical configurations or installed programs or available services, snapshotting allows you to create one computer however you like, and then effortlessly duplicate that setup nine more times.

In addition to easy replication, snapshotting is a solid safeguard against data loss. By routinely getting and storing a snapshot of your cloud server, should something bad happen (a virus gets in, the power fails at a bad time) you can simply restore the latest snapshot and minimize the consequences. Any service that offers “cloud backup,” such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live or Apple’s iCloud is relying in part on this feature to ensure the integrity of your data.

A common strategy of cloud providers is to group several customers onto one physical box and then create a virtual server for each customer.  While this might sound like it has all the security of getting a fox to guard the hen house, in point of fact virtualization can make each “virtual” server totally unaware of the other virtual servers on the same real hardware.  Moreover, the cloud provider, whose job it is to monitor and maintain the real hardware all of their customer’s virtual machines live on, will almost certainly have access to and the available capital needed for having the very best security measures in place.


The Cloud in a nutshell

In short, cloud computers and cloud networks simplify things. They simplify the ownership and maintenance of complicated and expensive systems by making it someone else’s full-time job rather than your full-time headache. They simplify traffic management by growing with your business, while simplifying security by using state-of-the-art equipment, providing redundant hardware and snapshot backups.  And they simplify your bill by making you only pay for what you use. Hopefully, the next time you’re confronted by the latest and greatest cloud service, you’ll find that understanding it is a little simpler.

And by the way, Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you.  But get a new email.

Happy selling!
-Michael Elder, Volusion


Michael Speed Elder is a Web Developer for Volusion, specializing in the front-end JavaScript, CSS and HTML used by the browser to make online experiences awesome. Between working in the digital ad space and now in ecommerce, Michael hasn't met a problem he couldn't solve with a webpage. On top of his usual responsibilities around the office, he's also in charge of keeping the ping pong tables busy, captaining the Nerf Marksmanship Team and being just a little too tall.

5 Responses to “What is Cloud Computing, Anyway? Clarifying The Nebulous Nature of Cloud Computing”

  1. Renee Harris

    So what’s worse, an aol.com email account or a hotmail account? I cringe when I see either one. Get mom a gmail account before her gmail name is taken. 🙂

    • Michael Elder

      Renee, true follow-up story to the @aol/@gmail situation: Gmail has a wonderful email importer to encourage people to effectively trade up to Google’s solution. For Christmas a few years ago, I ran this import for my mother and emptied her old AOL account. Unphased by this gesture of goodwill and good practice, my mother spent hours individually forwarding her emails back to AOL. It’s been gift cards to her favorite spa ever since.

      • Annie

        Thank you Michael for helping another ‘mom’ with a dinosaur email account to understand what a cloud is. Nicely done young man. Rest assured that I also have several gmail accounts to help me isolate new to me technology experiments as I, like your beloved mom, stop using the power button to shut things off.

  2. Alex

    Virtual machines can save websites a lot of money and can be deployed instantly in most cases making them very business friendly. The only downside is that many hosts do not provide monitoring for VMs so you have to monitor them yourself for downtime. However we host all of our sites on a VM and have never had any problems so far other than occasionally needing to restart the VM when it begins acting sluggishly.

    • Michael Elder

      Alex, that’s a very astute point. I would encourage anyone looking to make a tech decision of any kind to do a little research first, and when picking a Cloud provider, automatic monitoring should probably be high on the list of must-haves. Thanks for reading!


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