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What is the Cloud?

Like its namesake, cloud computing can seem distant and amorphous. In reality it is easy to understand and readily accessible. When we talk about “the cloud,” we’re talking about computer processing and/or storage that is done remotely.

In the early days of the information age, most computing was done remotely. Mainframes were big and costly and so companies couldn’t afford computers for each and every user.

Instead, companies and universities would rent data storage and processing power through “time sharing” arrangements. Users could log into weak workstations connected to a powerful mainframe and send the mainframe computational instructions. After the mainframe made its calculations, the output could be interfaced through the much less expensive workstations. Computer networking of this type was a relatively cheap solution to most users’ modest computing needs.

In the nineties the need for personal computing grew. PC hardware became more capable as storage and processor speeds doubled every year-and-a-half or so. Computers became ever more affordable and by the turn of the century half of American households had one. Rebuilding all of America’s communications infrastructure to accommodate all those home computers, however, proved less affordable. Most remote computing scenarios were no longer financially viable. Users would go to the store, pick up software on “compact” discs, install it to their PCs and work locally.

Today, what’s old is new again. Cheap, high-speed internet is readily available throughout most of America. “The cloud” has become a marketing term used to reintroduce people to the idea of buying software and storage as remote services. That’s the essence of cloud computing; processing and/or storage accomplished on a remote computer and delivered to the end user via a network.

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