The hidden truth behind cloud computing

A cloud in a hand
(Image credit: Natali _ Mis / Shutterstock)

Cloud computing is the technology wave of the future. It offers organizations levels of business agility and digital transformation that have never been seen before.  As a result, we are seeing an explosion in organizations migrating to cloud computing, building private clouds, and connecting to public clouds. But there's extreme confusion with regards to cloud computing. What is it? How does it work? And why is it so confusing?

About the author

Michael Gibbs is the CEO of Go Cloud Careers.

I'm here to tell you that the modern cloud is not new. How we use it has evolved, but it is not new. In fact, cloud computing has been in existence for decades. 

Cloud computing isn't new

I'm a network architect with more than 25 years of experience and the first cloud that I worked with was frame relay in the 1990s. 

Then around 1999, I started working on a new cloud called the ATM cloud, which stood for asynchronous transfer mode. That new technology enabled higher speed virtual connections between organizations throughout the world. Then that cloud evolved into a BGP cloud that was referenced by the Internet Engineering Task Force, RFC 2547. Then around 2001 or 2002 that cloud evolved into VPLS, which stood for Virtual Private LAN services. So, clearly, cloud computing is not new.

Here’s what is new about cloud computing: it used to just be a rented network and now it has turned into a rented network in a data center. In fact, cloud computing is nothing more than renting someone else's network in a data center. I'm going to state this again: cloud computing is only renting someone else's network and data center.

Cloud confusion

Still,  there is confusion surrounding the cloud. And a lot of that confusion is caused by the cloud providers. The cloud providers have (obfuscated) the simple things of cloud computing and they've confused people with some extremely expensive computationally fancy names. 

Allow me to describe the technology to you. The modern cloud is just running the network in the data center. So let's talk about the technology that exists in a data center. We have servers, storage, load balancers, routers, switches, firewalls, IDS/IPS system, DNS servers for Domain Name System, databases, etc. And I could go on with VPN concentrators, etc. What are the technologies we have in the cloud? Servers, storage, load balancers, routers, networking, switches, firewalls, IDS/IPS system, DNS and databases. The same things that we have in the data center, we have in the cloud. 

When we go to the cloud provider, they're using the same physical devices that we have in the data center. The cloud provider makes it work by taking the standard network and data center components and installing a thin layer of software that includes a control plane that orchestrates the cloud control and the data plane, which is all the servers and storage. The cloud provider uses their data center with that cloud based software to divide their data center into virtual data centers that they can rent out.

Renting datacenters

Don’t be confused by cloud computing. It simply involves renting out a portion of somebody else's data center and logically separating and securing our systems from our competitors. The software that is enabled on standard data centers, which is called the control plane, orchestrates where the servers go throughout the data center. 

Now, what is causing all of the complication and confusion?  It's the cloud providers and their tendency to rename and rebrand technology. 

In data centers, we've been using server virtualization forever. It’s the basis for all computing in the cloud. But in the Server Data Center, we call it a virtual machine. Amazon renamed their virtual machine the Elastic Compute Cloud. Google renamed their virtual machines the Compute Engine. And Microsoft still calls them a virtual machine.


Another reason we get into these complexities is because we have real storage in the data center, the same storage that Amazon and Google and Azure have in their data centers: block storage, object storage and file storage. And we all know what they are. Reach out to any data center. Call IBM or Dell EMC and you're going to know it: block storage, object storage, and file storage. But when we get to the cloud, the cloud providers again have to make their fancy names. Amazon calls object storage Amazon Simple Storage Solution. Google calls it Cloud Storage. Microsoft calls it Blob. So you can see that we're taking a standard technology and we're giving it fancy names and we're making them more confusing and more difficult to understand. 

Same thing with our load balancers. We call F5 and we get a network load balancer and application load balancer. We call Google, we get a cloud load balancer. We call AWS, we get an elastic load balancer. It's the same technology, but the name has changed. Same thing for our databases. Same thing for our DNS. Same thing for everything. What is the cloud? It's a virtual network in a data center. 

Now, if the cloud is the same as a network in a data center, why are we going to the cloud? Well, let's talk about agility. In our data center, once we run out of capacity we have to call Dell or IBM or whomever to ship us a new server.

Cloud provider

The cloud provider is already assuming that you need capacity, so in their data centers, they have plenty of servers for you to rent. In the cloud, I can just click a few buttons and in seconds I have a new server. The cloud is faster. The cloud is more agile. The cloud enables us to do something that could potentially take six weeks in the data center and shave that time to 30 seconds. That is a huge benefit. 

Where else does the cloud help us? In the data center, we build our capacity for the busiest time. So for example if I had a website that I was going to build and I sell retail goods, I would build it up for Christmas. And I would build my servers to deal with the Christmas volume. During the rest of the year, my servers may be operating at two and three percent, but I've got to buy everything ahead of time in anticipation of Christmas. 

When I go to the cloud, I can buy the server capacity that I need now and the cloud can basically increase capacity on demand. It's called “auto scaling,” which can enable me to buy what I want in that capacity on demand. So the cloud potentially can also be cheaper by enabling us to purchase what we want when we want it and nothing else. That's why organizations are going to the cloud. 

But remember: the cloud is just a network in a data center that we're renting from somebody else. There's nothing fancy. We can demystify the cloud and call it and network in the data center for rent. And that's what it is.

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Michael Gibbs is the CEO of Go Cloud Careers.