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For the majority of users—from individuals to businesses—the reality is that the meaning of cloud computing is simple: it is access to shared data storage and computation.
In the past, all the world’s most sophisticated computer resources were housed in cavernous off-campus buildings at the world’s most prestigious universities. Today, many organizations do at least some (if not all) data storage and computation in the cloud.
At its heart, cloud computing is all about the offloading of computer-based processes from self-managed and self-administered data centers to shared or public resources. These are then maintained, marketed, and rented out by dedicated provider companies, like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.
Amazon Web Services, for instance, offers 24 categories of cloud computing products, ranging from Analytics to Quantum Technologies to Storage. So while ‘cloud computing’ feels like a neat and comfortable description of a relatively homogenous offering, it turns out to be little more than a broad generalization of a vast array of different services.
You can make the case that the true genesis of cloud computing was the suddenly ubiquitous availability of online storage. As companies like box.com and Dropbox grew in popularity, individuals and corporations started to warm to the idea of data being outside their immediate control.
Hard as it is to imagine today, but when these services were introduced, the vast majority of companies rejected the idea that another organization would hold their data. It took a couple of hard decades of work to persuade these companies that a provider whose business was in providing secure services was likely more secure than any existing data center.
The proliferation of computers and smartphones in the second decade of the 21st century meant that the sheer volume of data (from business analytics to poorly-conceived Vine clips) being moved around and stored became too great for individual businesses to manage individually. As a result, the shifting feeling toward the security of third-party services accelerated, and businesses flocked to store their data on the networks for the cloud computing behemoths.
If cloud computing has any meaning, it is less in the features that it enables, and more in the way in which it has fundamentally changed the experience that users expect, and receive, from connected applications.
When the first iPhone launched in 2007, it couldn’t open millions of websites that were still using Macromedia (and later Adobe) Flash. Internet speed was dramatically slower than it is today, and users were accustomed to waiting a few seconds for applications to respond to their requests. In 2016, Google recommended that users wait for a website to load for just three seconds, but by 2019 the universal standard was down to only 1 second.
Why do users expect this lightning speed? Because cloud computing technology has enabled it to be a reality. Virtualized, containerized servers, replicated across the globe, deliver near-instantaneous responses to users right at the edge of the network, eliminating the need for requests to be passed around the Internet to a central data center, then dispatched back. The elimination of geographical-based slowdowns has had as fundamental an impact on user experience as any protocol, architecture, or infrastructure evolution.
Cloud computing means that users around the world now anticipate that applications will be always-on, always-connected, and always available to do their bidding. This standard has resulted in all sorts of new categories of applications and communications methodologies, generally centering around the creation of a community feel to any solution. For example, when a user is operating within a food delivery app, they expect to be in real time communication with the other players in any process. From communicating with the application and restaurant for ordering, then to the delivery person as they move from restaurant to drop-off, and finally with the application operator to share evaluations and ratings. The advent of cloud computing has meant that this is a reality that application providers can and must deliver.
Today we live in a world driven by cloud computing, meaning that consumers are connected instantaneously, in ways they could never have imagined, with features that would have been impossibly slow just a decade ago. New technology is also resulting in hybrid models of edge and cloud computing that helps reduce processing power and latency. While the core technologies are data storage and virtualized and/or containerized virtual servers, cloud computing providers offer hundreds of specific solutions—which application providers are using in new and exciting ways to elevate our always-on world to ever new heights.
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