January 12, 2023

What is 'The Cloud'?

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You use cloud computing services on a daily basis, probably without even realising it. For example, if you use a social media platform like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, these services also use cloud computing to store and manage the vast amounts of data that are generated by their users. Other common examples of cloud computing services that you might use include online storage and backup services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud, as well as online productivity tools like Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs. These services allow you to access your files and documents from any device with an internet connection, without having to store them on your own computer.

But what is cloud computing?

Here's a silly analogy to explain: imagine you're baking a cake, you need sugar, flour, eggs, and other ingredients. In the old days, you would have to buy all of these ingredients, and then store them in your kitchen. But with cloud computing, it's like you can just "rent" the ingredients you need from a big online grocery store. You only pay for what you use, and you don't have to worry about storing everything in your own kitchen. Plus, you can easily scale up or down depending on how big your cake is. So it's like a convenient, flexible, and cost-effective way to get all the ingredients you need for your cake (or your computing needs, in this case).

Cloud computing allows businesses and individuals to access and use large amounts of computing resources on-demand, without having to invest in and maintain their own physical infrastructure. This means that instead of each person or organization having their own computer, server, or data centre, they can access these resources from a remote location over the internet. This leads to the need for large data centres (the largest is bigger than Shanghai!), which can provide the necessary computing power and storage for many users at the same time. These data centres are often located in remote areas where land is cheap and the climate is cool, to help keep the computers and servers running efficiently.

Large data centres are typically built and operated by companies that provide cloud computing services, such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. Inside a data centre, there are typically many rows of racks or cabinets that hold the servers, storage devices, and other equipment. These racks are organised into clusters, and each cluster is designed to provide a certain amount of computing power or storage capacity. The data centre is also connected to the internet through high-speed network cables, which allow users to access the computing resources remotely. To ensure that the data centre is running efficiently and reliably, the facilities are typically equipped with backup power generators, cooling systems, and security measures to prevent unauthorised access. To stay ahead of the competition, these components all need to be replaced regularly. Two-thirds of data centre operators refresh their systems in less than three years (Statista), leading to a significant amount of e-waste when they are discarded.

So, despite the name, the "cloud" in cloud computing is not an actual cloud in the sky. It's a network of servers and other computing resources that are located in data centres around the world. Not very “cloud” at all. These data centres are physical facilities that are owned and operated by companies that provide cloud computing services. So while you can access the computing resources in the cloud over the internet, there are actual physical machines and infrastructure behind it. As you can imagine, this uses a lot of natural resources, and more than would be used if each company was responsible for its own computing.

We can use another food analogy to explain how; imagine that the cloud is like a giant all-you-can-eat buffet, and each time you use a computing resource from the cloud, it's like taking a bite of food from the buffet. If a lot of people are accessing the cloud at the same time, it's like a huge line of people all trying to eat as much as they can from the buffet. This can lead to a lot of "food waste" (in this case, energy waste), as the servers and other equipment in the data centres are working hard to keep up with the demand. And just like a real buffet, the more people that use the cloud, the more energy is needed to keep the buffet stocked and running. This can lead to increased carbon emissions from the power plants that are supplying the energy to the data centres, which is harmful to the environment.


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