What is the Cloud?

Cloud graphic

There are a lot of technical terms that IT professionals like to use, one of which is “the cloud”. What is the cloud anyway and why is it such a buzzword?

First things first: the cloud isn’t a physical thing, nor is it a place. We can’t reach out and touch it, let alone see it. Whether you know it or not, odds are that you’re already using the cloud.

Do you look use Facebook or Twitter? Do you listen to music on Apple Music or Spotify? Do you watch movies using Netflix or Amazon Prime? If any of those are true, then you already use the cloud. You just didn’t know it. All of the those services use the cloud.

The best way to understand the cloud is to look back at history. Years ago, when you had pictures, programs, music, or really any data at all, it was stored on 5.25” floppy disks (yeah, the ones that were actually floppy). Over time we used 3.5” disks, then zip drives, CD or DVD-ROMs, and eventually thumb drives. In all of those instances, your data was close to you. You could physically hold the storage device it was on. Over time, internal hard drives on computers became large enough that you could store a lot of your data on it.

Now, instead of data being present on a device you can hold in your hand or that is physically present in your home or office, many people opt to store their data on hard disks at a remote location. You don’t hold it physically, but you can still get to it. Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, OneDrive and countless other services offer to hold your data and you have to use your account login information to access it.

If you take a picture on your phone, that photo is stored in your phone’s internal memory. When you upload it to Facebook, Instagram, or another photo-sharing site, you’re putting it in the cloud. Using the cloud allows your friends and followers to be able to view it and interact with it. “The cloud” is what allows your personal photo to become social. Without the cloud, and the service, your photo would just stay on your phone.

Getting a Little Technical

Now that we’ve addressed what the cloud is from a theoretical perspective, we’ll dig just a little below the surface to address what the cloud is technically.

Each cloud service is a series of servers, each with its own purpose. Some servers store data while others run software or control access to information. The function of the servers is largely dependent upon the cloud service being provided. For example, servers for U of I Box store data, while servers for an Amazon Web Services’ Lambda runs compute services for customer code in the cloud instead of on servers physically hosted on the University of Illinois. When using the cloud you are accessing data that is stored on remote servers, so internet access is a necessity.

View the official definition of Cloud Computing by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.