A frequently cited study conducted by Citrix in 2012 revealed that the majority of Americans are hazy on what exactly cloud computing is, how it works, and who is using it. For example, while most people in the study thought they didn’t use cloud computing, a full 95% actually did, many on a daily basis. Most business owners and consumers had at least a vague sense of what “the cloud” entails, but for some people, the term sounded like something out a far-off, high-tech world. To them, it could be part of some nebulous future of meatballs and cheeseburgers falling from the sky.

Although the study is now almost six years old, it is unlikely that people understand cloud computing any better. Cloud computing services continue to expand and more businesses are turning to the cost-effective flexibility of the cloud. So, what exactly is it?
The cloud connects people to applications, databases, networks, storage and more through the internet. Instead of requiring physical hardware, software setup, and continual maintenance for all these computing functions, the cloud allows businesses and individuals to connect to ready-made resources whenever and wherever they want to—as long as they are connected to the world wide web. Users access configurable dashboards, often through a web browser, and cloud providers maintain the technology behind the computing. The top cloud providers include Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and IBM Cloud.

Some of the most widely used types of cloud computing are Software as a service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and Platform as a service (PaaS). Providers host SaaS applications, including programs for email management and core business processes that users can access through a public connection. Instead of having to install software on specific computers, people on any computer connected to the internet can use the resources without being tied to a specific location. And customers aren’t even tied to a computer at all. One of the key advantages of SaaS is the ability to access applications seamlessly from a laptop and mobile devices. Perhaps the greatest advantage of Saas from an employee perspective is the ability to work from home in your pajamas.

IaaS allows providers to virtually connect clients to hardware, operating systems, and data centers on a pay-per-use basis. The flexibility of computing power connected to users through the cloud eliminates the need for servers in the building with all the associated costs of powering, cooling, and maintaining those resources. While cloud security has its own challenges, businesses gain security by using cloud computing because they have access to remote storage and the ability to backup information on multiple servers. Businesses can meet evolving data storage needs without investing in physical infrastructure. A hot server might be a good place to toast a meatball sandwich in a pinch, but businesses can invest in a break room toaster oven for an appreciable cost-savings.

PaaS is a tool for software development that offers a testing ground for the code. Developers can run, test, and manage code in the environment created by cloud providers instead of having to maintain the infrastructure themselves. Having a fully functional platform readily available cuts the time it takes to develop applications. Web Developers and App Developers can also change to a different coding language and incorporate emerging technologies without having to revise a set platform because of the versatility of cloud offerings. Using cloud computing can lead to more time and money for businesses pursuing application development.

The centralized management of cloud computing services provides flexibility traditional software and databases lack. In Citrix’s cloud survey, even people who didn’t understand what the cloud is, when given a basic definition, immediately saw its potential economic benefits. Cloud services give businesses tools that they don’t need to own and maintain. Providers continually update and streamline these tools, meaning that businesses aren’t stuck with outdated computing power. Many cloud offerings function on a pay-per-use basis, either by the number of users per account or by the number of services in a customized package. This can represent a significant cost savings when compared to the traditional model of purchasing a one-time software license. Because cloud services are constantly evolving, businesses are also not tied to any particular item but can change as technologies emerge to better meet their needs.

While the capabilities of cloud services are complex and far-ranging, the underlying cloud concept is simple: connecting businesses and individuals to computing power beyond what they have under their own roof. The cloud certainly isn’t going anywhere, so we will just have to wait and see about the chance of meatballs. We aren’t there yet, but once drones are part of everyday life, ordering a meatball sandwich delivered by the high-tech device will be possible thanks to the ever-expanding use for cloud computing.

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