Understanding Cloud Infrastructure

Everyone in the business world today is familiar with the phrase “The Cloud”. But oftentimes, the definition of the cloud may be as unclear as its namesake. This article will define the cloud and each of the terms related to the concept of cloud computing.

What is cloud infrastructure?

Cloud infrastructure includes any hardware components that exist under the company offering cloud services. For example, amazon web services might have a set of servers, data storage arrays, and network equipment that are part of their cloud offering. This group of hardware is partitioned out to customers who pay for cloud services. Cloud infrastructure may also include virtualization software to manage the infrastructure. Common software utilized to virtualize cloud hardware includes Microsoft Hyper-V, VMWare Workstation, and CentOS KVM. Once partitioned each of the hardware resources is available to be managed by a particular customer either via a graphical interface or command line. For the more technical customer base, an Application Program Interface (API) may be available to automate tasks.

Resources are hosted by a separate organization, this may be a service provider, or it may be an IT department within an organization. Services are delivered over the network from the cloud to each user. Services provided to users may include server and networking infrastructure, security components, or higher layers of abstraction such as a particular software.

What are the hardware components?

In a high-end cloud, the hardware elements are on a much greater scale than those found in a local data center. However, the components are much the same. Typical components such as data center servers, storage arrays, routers, switches, and firewalls are all some common equipment that would exist in this type of environment.

Major Cloud Services

There are several major public cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure. These providers utilize massive multi-tenant servers which provide a much greater user capacity. These higher density systems often share power, reducing the cost of electricity for the provider.

Cloud Storage

Storage arrays are a little different than those in a typical data center which often includes shared disk arrays on a Storage Area Network (SAN). The cloud service instead utilizes SSD and SATA attached storage that are aggregated with a distributed file system. This allows storage control to be separate from physical implementation. Logical control of the array will enable storage to be appropriately and quickly scaled to both larger and smaller customers.

Private Cloud vs Public vs Hybrid

A cloud infrastructure may be implemented as a private cloud, public cloud or hybrid. In a private cloud infrastructure, the entirety of the cloud is owned by the local organization. In a public cloud model, the entirety of the cloud is purchased from a third party. A hybrid architecture contains a mix of the two with some components owned internally and the rest owned by a third party.

What is IaaS?

An organization may utilize a cloud service to provide compute infrastructure only. This is known as infrastructure as a service (IaaS). This type of service is utilized to reduce or eliminate the cost of purchasing on-premise computing components such as servers, storage, and networking equipment. IaaS may utilize a pay-per-usage model to charge for services. In this model, the cloud service will charge for services on an hourly, weekly, or monthly basis. The amount charged during each time period may be based on the amount of compute and storage apportioned to a particular customer. Storage pricing may also depend on the type of storage such as SSD vs HDD and availability. Discounts may be afforded for consistency over time where customers are able to prepay for services months or years in advance.

Software as a service

Another cloud model is software as a service (SaaS). In this paradigm, a cloud service provides applications directly available to a customer over the internet. A single copy of the application is available to all customers simultaneously with equivalent features on each. When upgrades are provided, they are provided to all customers at once. Software as a Service (SaaS) applications may include email, sales management, customer relationship management, human resource management, and financial collaboration. Some top providers of SaaS include Salesforce, Oracle, SAP, Intuit, and Microsoft.

Advantage of SaaS

Software as a Service offers many advantages over hosting software in house. A monthly subscription to the service may eliminate internal management and maintenance costs for the use of this type of software system internally. Costs for software installation and licensing along with hardware acquisition are also deferred on to the cloud service. SaaS services are also incredibly scalable. Customers can often access more or fewer services on-demand by simply changing their subscription type. Maintenance and upgrades such as patching are delivered over the air reducing the load on internal IT staff.

Cloud services may also come with some disadvantages. Security is no longer under control of the internal organization. Businesses often have sensitive data that must be stored within the cloud such as financial data, personal data, or company proprietary data. By relying on the cloud to protect these services, the company does assume some risk. It is also possible that an external company may be prone to service interruptions. By relinquishing control of maintenance operations, a company may be at risk of experiencing any interruptions to which third-party cloud service is exposed. For key company services that are outsourced to the cloud, it is paramount that a company ensure a service level agreement is in place with the provider.

Cloud services are a key component of today’s business environment. Whether utilizing the cloud for computer power only or for software as a service, the cloud is an important part of an organization’s lifeblood. It is paramount that company executives in businesses both large and small are aware of the many technologies available.

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