A simple explanation of “cloud computing” for non-techie people

Apple recently announced their iCloud and news of this seems to have made the the “Cloud” reach mainstream status. A lot of people are now aware that something out there called the “cloud” or cloud computing exists. But what exactly is it? Here is a simple explanation of cloud computing for non-techie people and all the important things you need to be aware of...

First, a brief explanation of why the “cloud” is called the “cloud”. It’s all because the clever IT guys that build computer networks find it easier to draw a cloud to represent all the connections that make up the Internet (see picture above).

In other words, the “cloud” is a word referring to all the hundreds of Internet connections involved in sending your email to your friend for example. Put simply, your email goes through a “cloud” of multiple Internet connections.

So that was how it started, as the Internet grew, all the connections on the Internet became known as the “cloud”.

Over time, because technology never stands still, something else happened, the “cloud” got clever.

IT guys realised that they could do more than just provide connections in the cloud, they could actually put big computers with super computing power in the cloud and share these big computers with lots of people. With this idea, cloud computing was born.

This shared big computing power in the cloud is all the buzz these days. The best way to understand it from a non-techie perspective is to think of cloud computing as literally a computer you can access on the Internet (see picture below).

In other words, right now you probably have two computers with you:

  1. Your laptop or PC and 
  2. Your smart phone (yes the new smart phones including tablets or the iPad are just specialised mini computers)

So now in addition to your two computers, with cloud computing you now have another computer in the cloud (see picture below)...

So what’s so cool about this? Well, here is some of the exciting stuff you can do with this...

  1. You can use the cloud computer to store all your data, just in case your laptop or smart phone get stolen, damaged or lost.
  2. If you have a smart phone (e.g. Android or iPhone) you can use the cloud computer to automatically synchronize things like email, pictures, music, contacts etc, between your smart phone, cloud computer and your laptop.
  3. You can use the cloud computer to run a business e.g. instead of installing an accounting software on all the individual computers in your business, just install the accounting software on the cloud computer and everyone within your business can access this software from a laptop or smart phone via the Internet (the IT guys call this Software as a Service).

However, A key difference between the cloud computer and your own computer is that you don’t physically go out and buy a cloud computer. Because of this, if you want to make extensive use of a cloud computer you usually pay for it on a monthly basis.

The basic model is that the more storage or computing power you need per month, the more the monthly fee goes up. It’s similar to the way you pay for Internet access these days. The bigger and faster you want your Internet access, the bigger the monthly fee you will have to pay. The good news is that a lot of cloud services are actually free e.g. Facebook or Gmail.

But keep this in mind, just like normal computers are not the same, cloud computers are also not the same. Some are more powerful than others. Some are better at doing certain things than others. Knowing which type of cloud computer is best suited for your requirements is important if you want to get maximum benefit out of using the cloud. And this is no different to finding out which laptop is better for work and which laptop is better for entertainment or games.

Here are some examples:

  • Facebook’s cloud computers and software are good for connecting with friends and family, and giving yourself an online identity. 
  • Apple’s iCloud computers are good at storing and syncing your stuff like music, pictures, calendars etc across your Apple devices (iPod, iPhone, iMac etc). 
  • Amazon’s Kindle cloud computers are good at storing and syncing the ebooks you buy from Amazon. 

So the things you can do with the cloud are limited by the company providing the cloud service and by imagination. An even more interesting cloud service is Google’s cloud called Google Apps for Business.

The best way to think about Google Apps for Business is almost the same way you think about a Windows operating system. Meaning that when you buy a new Windows machine (e.g. a laptop with Windows 7), you get all the basics like email, calendar, picture storage etc.

But more importantly, you expect the Windows software itself to allow you to install other software that you want to use. For example you can install software for project management, accounting, picture editing etc because your windows machine allows you to do this.

Similarly, once you get the Google Apps for Business service, you get the basics like email, calendar, pictures etc but you can also install other software into the service similar to the way you install additional software on your windows machine.

This gives companies using Google Apps for Business all the benefits of a cloud service plus the ability to expand the service through installing additional business software. Check out this link to the Google Apps Marketplace to see all the software you can install into Google Apps for Business. Also check out the video below...

A service like Google Apps for Business takes the next step for cloud computing by making the cloud practical for business use. Companies are already using Google Apps for Business to enhance business operations (see case studies here).

The world is abuzz with cloud computing. You can use the cloud for business, personal use, entertainment, social networking and other things that we may not have thought of yet.

The key benefit of cloud computing, is that more people and businesses today have access to a lot more computing power than ever before, and access to this computing power is from any place in the world that has Internet connectivity.

Leave a comment below if you found this article useful.

For a more formal definition of cloud computing, read this short document by the National Institute of Standards and Definition, U.S. Department of Commerce. The document provides formal definitions for the different cloud computing services such as:
  • Software as a Service
  • Infrastructure as a Service and
  • Platform as Service.
Also see
How the Apple iCloud Compares to Google's Cloud


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