Cloud 101 -- What is the Cloud?

Editor's note: What are the best practices in moving data to the clouds? Learn more here!

If you listen to the IBM advertisements on television, the company describes itself as a workload optimized service management platform -- but what does that mean? Basically, in the most simplistic form, the cloud is a virtual data center. That's it!

People often ask why the cloud is so popular. So you don't get the deer in the headlights look trying to explain what an optimized workload is, I usually go with a data center. However, there are unique characteristics that allow it to be referred to as the Cloud. First, it is usually fully virtualized and accessed via the internet (or cloud), whether it is a virtual private or public network. The areas where companies are rapidly adopting cloud computing is software as a service, Disaster Recovery and storage backup.

Most, if not all, fortune 500 companies have had "the Cloud" for years. Basically, they created their own virtual data center for disaster recovery or for centralized server management and remote or branch offices access applications, services and/or infrastructure via a secure internet connection. These are considered virtual private data centers versus what the Cloud is typically referred to as a virtual public data center, like Amazon, where services, platforms or infrastructure is accessed via the internet.

Google, the "Software as a Service" (SaaS) model for years, is used as a way to access legal briefings and decisions for research. Lexus Nexus is probably the most notable provider of these types of services to thousands of law firms. The reason is that Lexus Nexus has made the investment to provide all of this legal information so the company doesn't have to. Essentially, it becomes a commodity type of service that you lease for as long as you need that information or service.

Another benefit of the Cloud is its ability to be utilized as a disaster recovery facility or alternate facility to enhance backup and recovery requirements. For smaller businesses the cost to create a data center is usually too expensive to justify. Many companies don't have the business continuity they would like. With the introduction of cloud providers offering infrastructure services all of the sudden, it is more cost effective for SMB's to lease infrastructure for disaster recovery than it would be to gather all the funds required to make that purchase at once.

Another benefit to leasing the infrastructure is that the company doesn't need to acquire resources or staff just to manage the additional datacenter, and you only need to pay for what you use. The pay as you go model may be one of the largest advantages of the cloud. Rather than purchasing a data center of equipment and just waiting for it to fill up, you only use what you need and it expands dynamically so when you need more storage, processing or memory, additional resources can be added on the fly in real-time.

Only paying for the storage you need is what makes cloud providers like the Amazon EC2 and others an attractive backup and recovery option. Cloud computing can now provide a more readily available copy of data that can be recovered anytime, anywhere and greatly reduce the recovery time objectives of using a tape archive solution. So, company's today are using cloud computing to enhance their existing backup solutions to not only reduce the amount of money spent on the tape medium, storage services and shipping but also reduce the amount of time it would take to recover.

Tape has been around for a long time, so I don't see cloud computing replacing tape backup anytime soon. However, tape will definitely be used to improve those business critical servers that need an improved recovery time. Tape can still be used as an offsite archive solution to meet industry compliance regulations where documents and data need to be available for upwards of 7 years before they can be destroyed.

So, what is the Cloud? It is a data center but the real difference is how that data center is built, managed and utilized by companies. Cloud computing provides infrastructure, software and platforms as a purchasable service that would not be an option for most companies. So the cloud provides opportunities for companies to rapidly spin up data center resources without the need for knowledge experts, software administrators, and hardware startup costs.

So the three functions that cloud computing can provide is to serve as a disaster recovery facility, a platform and infrastructure for enhanced backup procedures as well as the ability to lease software as needed, versus trying to disrupt the company organization to implement yourself. This is only the tip of the iceberg regarding cloud computing possibilities and over the next few years this industry will grow and is forecasted by many to be a 25 billion dollar business opportunity.

About the Author

Brace Rennels is a certified business continuity professional and project manager at Double-Take Software and has been involved with over 1600 Double-Take Software disaster recovery installations. Rennels is responsible for managing the message of the professional services organization, the partner channel/OEM related services activities, and the implementation of new service programs to drive Double-Take Sales.

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