Cloud 101 — The driving force behind cloud computing

Posted on May 15th, 2020

I like to explain the driving force behind cloud computing with a very simple analogy. Before the power grid was built, every company that wanted to use electricity had to generate their own or find someone nearby who had a surplus. Apart from their main business, they were also required to be in the power business: buying coal, maintaining generators, hiring electricians.

Now, of course, whether you’re powering an apartment or a factory you simply need to connect to the grid and you don’t have to worry about power generation, surpluses, planning for peak times, and all the behind-the-scenes hassles. You connect to the grid, you get power.

Cloud computing has revolutionized computing the same way that the power grid revolutionized electricity. Today, whether your server needs are on the level of Facebook or a tiny one-visitor blog, you can get the servers you need from a cloud provider without having to worry about scaling, hardware, or the problems that come with physical servers.

Fundamentally, the cloud lets you think about computing not in terms of physical servers, but in terms of the work you need to do. Before the cloud existed, companies had to purchase and maintain their own servers. Most of the time these servers sat idle because companies had to plan around peak usage, not average usage, and so they overprovisioned.

Major cloud providers like Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, or Google’s GCE let you plan your service in terms of compute units, the amount of work that you actually do. In the middle of the day when your site is getting hits, you scale up to meet demand and you get charged for the servers you’re using. After business hours when there’s only a trickle of visitors, you can scale down and stop paying for servers you no longer need. Using the cloud means your IT expenses mirror your growth, down to the minute.

While the world of cloud providers started out simply by leasing extra hardware, today it has expanded to much more. Providers understand that you’re renting commoditized hardware that you could get from any other cloud provider, and so they’ve started expanding the services they provide alongside their cloud server offerings. Today, AWS (to take one example) provides almost 100 separate add-ons, from bespoke database services to app monitoring to machine learning tools based on Amazon’s own AI research.

Their competition is to your benefit. The suite of products offered by cloud providers makes it easier to develop and deploy a product than at any other time in internet history. Instead of hiring database engineers and system admins to monitor your servers, you can deploy an application on the cloud and have it completely provisioned in minutes. This is the power of the cloud revolution: you can scale up servers with the same worry-free approach you take to something as basic as electricity.