The “cloud” remains a bright spot in the computing world, an area of growth.
Cloud computing is the latest incarnation of an old concept in computerdom, the use of remote computer services. Instead of running programs on your desktop computer or your organization’s network server and instead of needing lots of processing power and storage space at your location, you use resources delivered over the Internet by a service provider.
Thus the Internet is the “cloud.” The term “internet computing” would be easier to understand than “cloud computing,” but the computer world has never been very good at coming up with clear terminology.
Cloud computing can save time and money. You pay for only what you need, and you delegate the updating and troubleshooting of software to the service provider.
Market research firm Gartner just did an analysis in which it placed cloud service providers into four quadrants based upon completeness of vision and ability to execute. In the highest quadrant, considered “leaders,” were Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, with Amazon ranked higher because of its better ability to execute.
In the second highest quadrant, in order, were Google Cloud Platform, Alibaba Cloud, IBM Cloud, and Oracle Cloud. The rest of the public cloud providers looked at by Gartner were considered “niche players.”
Amazon also has the highest cloud market share by far, followed in order by Microsoft, Google, and IBM. Gartner predicts that public cloud services as a whole will grow by 18% this year.
If you’re a home, school, or small-business user, you’re probably already using the cloud in one way or another.
With a web-based email account such Gmail, Yahoo Mail, or Microsoft’s Outlook, or if you’ve ever uploaded your photos to a photo-sharing service such as Snapfish or Shutterfly, you’ve experienced the cloud. These services are free, supported by advertising or optional pay services.
The most fully featured cloud offering today is G Suite, which used to be called Google Apps. It was designed to be used with the browser Google Chrome and a live internet connection, but you can also use much of its features with other browsers and work offline.
G Suite includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, forms, diagramming, calendaring, instant messaging, video chat, social networking, wiki creation, email, and offsite storage. It’s free for consumers, part of the Google Drive service. Various business offerings start at $5 per user per month.
Another popular application for cloud computing is computer games. Without needing a high-performance computer, you can use the cloud to play state-of-the-art computer games with others from around the world. Online games are available, among other places, from Miniclip and Big Fish Casino.
Less exciting but more necessary are cloud backup services. Well-regarded options include IDrive, CrashPlan, and SOS Online Backup. Offsite backup, as opposed to backing up onsite, offers protection against fires, floods, and theft in addition to crashed hard drives and other hardware failure.
Other popular cloud services include Microsoft Office 365 for Microsoft Word, Excel, and other Office programs, Salesforce.com for managing customer relations, Dropbox for remote storage and synchronization, and MailChimp for email marketing.
For hardcore business use, some companies go private rather than public. “Direct connect,” as its name implies, provides a direct, dedicated connection to a cloud service provider. Unlike with the public cloud, data doesn’t flow over public wires.
A new study by Krystallize Technologies, which tested IBM Cloud, offers measurable evidence that connections are faster this way, sometimes considerably faster. The reason is decreased “latency,” which is a delay caused by bottlenecks at one or more spots over the public Internet. It’s the same phenomenon that renders Internet phone calls choppy.
Direct connect can also improve security. The major public cloud providers offer direct connect, at a price.
For individuals as well as businesses, there will still be a place for programs used locally and for data stored locally, on your desktop or laptop computer or within an organization. But indications are that the cloud is the wave of the future.
Cloud computing represents a paradigm shift no less significant than the move away from mainframe computers to PCs in the 1980s. Its proponents often use the analogy of the electricity grid. Just as with electricity, computer services are there when you need them and when there’s a charge you pay for just what you use.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.