We’re increasingly called on to answer questions from our clients about The Cloud. Sometimes its about security, encryption or backups. Sometimes its about performance, reliability and features. But often people just want to know what the hell this cloud stuff is and why its different to what they’re already doing.

We pride ourselves on avoiding jargon and being able to communicate with non-technical clients in language they can understand. However, The Cloud is a complex concept and sometimes for the sake of brevity or in an effort make it understandable, explanations can be oversimplified.

Just saying that “it’s online rather than on a server in your office” glosses over many of the benefits and key ideas of The Cloud – after all businesses have put servers in datacentres and accessed them via the internet for years. Read on to find out what it’s all about.

You’re buying a service rather than a product

The first concept that’s different from traditional systems is a move away from buying products like software, servers and hard drives, to buying services. The services you buy are the end result you’re aiming for – email accounts, document storage, accounts and invoices, time and attendance tracking, and so on.

Like other services (or utilities) you don’t actually “own” them, you get the benefit of them for the duration that you pay for them. Think of cloud services along the same lines as cleaning services, electricity supply or couriers.

The Cloud is scalable, distributed and shared

Clouds are nebulous with no fixed form and ever changing boundaries, to my mind it is this aspect of real clouds that The Cloud is named for. When you install software on a server in your office, whether that is Exchange for email, Sage for accounting, or anything else, it will have a defined capacity. The server will support a certain number of email accounts, or concurrent users, or gigabytes of data. You need to know how much capacity you need when you install the system. It’s unlikely this planning will be exactly right, some systems will find they cannot meet the requirements of business, but most often to avoid that outcome, systems are over specified and unnecessarily expensive.

When you buy cloud services you only pay for what you need. That might be 10 Exchange mailboxes, it might be 10,000. It might increase and decrease month by month, it doesn’t matter, and you can change almost instantly. This allows huge flexibility and can save a lot of money as well as time and hassle in upfront planning.

The ability to scale like this is possible because cloud systems are shared and distributed. What this means is the system is spread across many servers, often in multiple datacentres, but each client only uses a slice of it. This allows a cloud service to be much more efficient because when averaged across many accounts then servers can run much closer to their ideal capacity.

All the complexity is abstracted away

The benefit of cloud services being scalable is important to understand, but how the servers are configured, or the processes by which the service is spread across multiple servers is all hidden away. This is a good thing, you’ve got more important things to think about!

When you have your own server you are responsible for making sure it has the latest security patches, that there’s enough capacity, taking backups and planning for the next upgrade, but with a cloud service all this is handled behind the scenes and included in the monthly charge.

In fact if you ask a cloud provider to give you specifications for the servers they are using or which particular server your mailbox is stored on, etc they almost certainly won’t tell you. In some cases this is because of trade secrets, but often it’s because all that scalability and distribution means it is constantly changing. Data is moved automatically as necessary (and probably copied to multiple places) and new servers are being added or changed all the time.

It’s not just the infrastructure complexities of servers, networks, storage and backup power supplies that are abstracted away, but also software updates. One of the best things about many cloud services, particularly systems you access via a web browser, is that everyone is always on the latest version of the software, and bugs are fixed for everyone as soon as they are available.

You might not own the service, but you should own the data

Catering is a classic service, and like other services you don’t own it, you get the benefit of the Chef’s cooking while you pay for it. You do however own the output of that service – the food – and you can think of data in cloud services in a similar way.

You could be paying Dropbox for an online storage service, but the spreadsheets and documents you store there should belong to you. This is something to be careful about, as although I’ve never heard of a cloud service which takes total ownership of your data, some services have clauses which give them rights to use your data.

This is more often the case with free services – for example uploading a picture to a photo service might grant them permission to use their customer’s photos in their own marketing materials. A service might analyse your data in order to show you adverts or sell it on to a marketing company.

As a business user you need to aware of this especially if you deal with customer details or other confidential information.

All the cloud services Orbits offers, and almost all the ones we recommend are paid-for services where you can be sure you are in control of you data and it’s not being “monetized” in some shady way. We take your security and privacy seriously.

If you would like to discuss how cloud services could be of benefit to your organisation, don’t hesitate to contact us.