We need to talk about the Cloud

What is the Cloud? Many of us, including some of us in technology streams use this word too loosely. The aim of this post is to define what the Cloud is and look at a few of its distinguishable parts in detail. This article will act as cornerstone content moving forward.

The Cloud is an umbrella term for a group of technological offerings, such as IaaS(Infrastructure as a Service), SaaS(Software as a Service), PaaS(Platform as a Service) and FaaS(Functions as a Service). All of these offerings are consumption oriented computational services, as such, they’re grouped together. Let’s explore this premise further.

Electricity is a necessity to everyone(except for the mormons and the true hermits of this world), but for most of us, it doesn’t make sense to go to the extreme of generating and storing electricity on our own to satisfy our need. Instead, we let a third party generate it for us, the economics of scale brings the costs down and we are able to gain access to electricity at a mere fraction of the cost and woe of doing it ourselves. Similarly, With the advancements of technology and the proliferation of high-speed networks that span the globe, renting out computational services have become a viable alternative to buying or building our own.

“The Cloud is an umbrella term that is used to describe a set of technological offerings that offer computational services on consumption based pricing models.”

Therefore, when we use the word “Cloud” in a technological context, we are usually referring to one particular Cloud technology such as Iaas or PaaS or to the whole spectrum of technologies that occupy this space. Let’s explore four prominent Cloud technologies,

IaaS

IaaS is the oldest and the most mature of the Cloud technologies, dating back to the early 2000s. The central premise of this service is to provide access to hardware infrastructure to those who stand to benefit from availing them. Amazon AWS is largely credited for identifying this business opportunity and coming up with the first viable solutions, EC2 and S3[1].

The first major technological breakthrough that allowed the creation of IaaS, was virtualization. The ability to isolate computational units. Virtualization in concept creates a complete digital representation of a computer. This advent allowed a physical server(a host) to house multiple computing units(guests) within it and be bridged to the host network, allowing the VM’s access to the larger networks that make up the whole. Better computation density reduced the cost per unit.

In the decade that followed since the introduction of AWS, the IaaS space got consolidated and clear leaders emerged. The leaders in this space can now provide Infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of buying and operating the same resources in-house. Further, as the leaders are behemoths in scale and capability, they’re able to secure some of the best and brightest minds in this space. Consumers, therefore, could now avail the services of those who literally wrote the books on security, performance, and availability. In practicality, SLA’s provided by these leaders are better than those that can be expected by most in-house infrastructure. All though IaaS has become the norm for most SME’s and even some large enterprises, there can be non-technical constraints that prevent others from using these services.

Virtualization Vs. Containerization

Where virtualization isolates a complete computational unit, operating system included, a container isolates the very minimum that needs isolation such as processes, networks and IAM aspects. This nature of containerization allows faster spin up speeds, smaller foot prints and in many cases(not all) even greater computational density per physical server.

Note that in the above diagram the hypervisor is shown as a component sitting on top of the OS layer, however, some hardware level support is also provided by some vendors. Further, all through containers, in theory, can be created right out of the OS layer, usually, container runtimes such as Docker are used to make the process simpler(and better). Let’s dive into a detailed comparison between the two technologies at a later time.

SaaS

With the proliferation of high-speed internet connections and IaaS, software providers saw the internet as a new platform on which they can build and sell their products. This new breed of Software worked over existing internet architecture and relatively new inclusions such as asynchronous data communication mechanisms built to increase the responsiveness of browser based applications.

As with the adoption of any technology, the early majority and late majority of users looked to the success of early adopters of SaaS to assess suitability. Breakthrough products like Salesforce and Google’s Gsuite range of products(including google drive and gmail) did exactly this. With the demand now in full swing, traditional software vendors had to adapt to the changing landscape, and so ensued large players like Microsoft and Adobe with SaaS offerings of their popular products.

PaaS

With the acceptance of IaaS and SaaS as a viable component in enterprise information systems. The credibility of the Cloud infrastructure got the validation as a means of reliable service delivery. With this validation, platform providers such as those who provide system integration capabilities or analytical capabilities saw the need for per consumption versions of their products, this lead to Cloud oriented spin offs of products such as Data Integration solutions and API management solutions by platform providers.

Currently, the leaders of the IaaS space provide most, if not all the platform capabilities provided by traditional platform providers. Only those PaaS providers who are also legitimate players in the IaaS space such as Google Cloud Platform, Azure, Oracle, and AWS could offer true PaaS capabilities without dependencies on third party IaaS providers.

“PaaS space is comparatively new, as such, it is not consolidated like the IaaS space.”

The PaaS space is comparatively new, as such, it is not consolidated like IaaS, therefore the providers who qualify with the IaaS prerequisites who provide the most compelling set of capabilities and the market push would emerge as the leaders in the coming years.

The Private Cloud

Here lies another instance where the word “Cloud” is used loosely. Someone could interpret “the private Cloud” as a SaaS that is deployed within the boundaries of an organization’s private network, IaaS that is deployed the same way and made available exclusively to the members of an organization or a complete platform deployed and made available exclusively to the members of an organization.

Organizations, especially large enterprises may have concerns with shifting their workloads to public Cloud technologies discussed earlier on in this article. There could be legal constraints in moving in-house data into servers managed by third parties or there could be some other conflicts of interest. Conversely, the organization might find it beneficial to ride its existing bare metal infrastructure which it has already invested in. Therefore, there is a legitimate need for the Private Cloud, especially private IaaS and PaaS. This void is being filled by providers such as Red Hat(quite successfully I must add) with products such as OpenStack and OpenShift. Other full stack platform providers(bare metal up) such as Oracle also stand to benefit from the Private Cloud.

“It’s believed that the inventors of the ethernet, named the technology after the almost metaphysical experience a nontechnical person would have using the technology. For this person it just worked, for this person it didn’t really matter how it worked as long as it did work, and so it goes with the Cloud”

This article aimed to demystify some of the inaccurate definitions of the Cloud that gets thrown around. It discussed four of its key components in relative detail and shed some light on the current state of affairs in this space.

It’s believed that the inventors of the ethernet(a significant stepping stone in what lead to the creation of the internet), named the technology after the almost metaphysical experience a nontechnical person would have using the technology, for this person it just worked. For this person it didn’t really matter how it worked as long as it did work, and so it goes with the Cloud.

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