Monday, March 5, 2018

So What Exactly is The Cloud?

Happy Monday.

While doing some research for a future novel, I realized I was a bit fuzzy on this whole "Cloud" thing. What exactly is The Cloud. And what does it do?

My understanding was about this sophisticated:

The Cloud is someplace over the rainbow where I store a bunch of manuscripts and photos and music and files and stuff, and I think of it as this nebulous place high above the ground but below the exosphere where all this information just sort of hangs in the atmosphere like a, you know, cloud.

Okay, you more tech-minded readers probably find this quite amusing. True, I do write somewhat techy SFR but that doesn't mean I understand all these intricate electronic data storage concepts. But I needed to get a basic understanding of how it works for elements of a story, so I thought there may be a few readers out there that have the same question mark in their minds and might like a basic overview. fodder!

Why is it called The Cloud?

The answer is pretty silly. They call it "the cloud" because in the past a picture of a cloud was used to represent the telephone network, and later as an abstract representation of the internet and its underlying infrastructure. Which naturally extended to internet data storage. (And maybe just to confuse writers so they need to research it. I'm convinced.)

What is it and How Does it Work?

Because I'm a kind of show-don't-tell kind of learner, I first found this:
(Actually, I found several Cloud Computing 101 videos, but this one was the most entertaining and has a narrator least likely to put you to sleep.)

Okay, that helps. Now I know "the cloud" isn't something up in the sky, it's a bunch of mega-huge facilities with mega-ginormous servers all over the planet that can store your data and make your data accessible to you...anywhere.

So, for instance, if your house gets hit by a falling satellite and it obliterates everything including your computer. Ack! My files! No, it's not a problem if you have your crucial data stored in the cloud (like those fifteen manuscripts you've been investing insane amounts of time on, and cover images, and related research, blurbs, blogs and memes). You can access those files from your temporary hotel room. And if your temporary hotel burns down, you can access it from your Aunt Shelby's house. And if your Aunt Shelby kicks you out....well, you still have access from wherever you go next while you're waiting for your house to be rebuilt.

Googledocs and Dropbox make use of Cloud storage. I use Dropbox extensively, so I was already using the Cloud without really understanding what that meant.

iCloud is also a popular cloud storage method and provides storage of data, music, other multimedia and documents online, seamlessly integrated onto your devices or apps.

But that's a very basic explanation. I get into it in just a little more detail below, but--fair warning--this may be the point where your eyes start glazing over. Sorry! This stuff is dry. There's no way around it.

Types of Cloud Computing

Just for purposes of expanding on the overall definition, there are three types of cloud computing. In order of service, they are:

SaaS (sass) is Software as a Service
This is the on demand, pay per use sort. So, yes, it's what I use. Cloud Basic. No need to install special software on your PC and it's available via a web browser, such as Gmail, Googledocs, Googledrive, Help Desk Solutions, etc. SaaS cloud computing is accessable from any platform, allows you to work from anywhere, is excellent for collaboration, and the vendor provides some of the software tools. So writer-types use SaaS a lot. However, there can be some problems caused by internet performance, browser issues and the like.

PaaS (pass) Platforms as a Service
This is made up of a programming language execution environment, an operating system, a web server, and a database. It's basically a cloud computing service where users don't need to worry about underlying infrastructure. Some examples are Windows Azure, heroku, and No, I've never heard of those either, but that may be because PaaS is used mainly by developers. I'm not a developer, so this falls under NtK (Nice to Know).

IaaS (ee-yas) Infrastructures as a Service
This service offers computing architecture and infrastructure and all computing resources in a virtual environment where multiple users can access them. It includes data storage, virtualization, servers and networking. In most cases, the vendors are responsible for managing the resources. It's used mainly by systems administrators, via Amazon EC2, GoGrid or Yeah, also over my head. I'm not a SysAdmin, and most of them talk in a language I can barely understand, so this is also a NtK.

For many of us, all this probably adds up to a big fat "Huh?"

I found this brief video that attempts to explain the facets of Cloud Computing in Plain English. Well, sort of. And with lots of metaphors and symbolism, but it may make more sense than anything I tried to translate (badly) above.

How Scientists Might Use the Cloud

For my story, it would be helpful to know how a scientist might use the Cloud. Since it's going to take months to sort through all the info I found for the specifics I need, I just picked up a few interesting tidbits from my afternoon research session.
  • The Cloud is especially useful for scientists who need access to huge data storage capabilities, because it's cheaper (five to seven times less expensive!) to utilize warehouse-size data centers that might have 50,000 or more servers, than a smaller facility with only 1000 or so.
  • Some research requires massive amounts of data, such as astronomy, where it would take literally months via internet to upload the tens of terabytes generated daily, so some centers allow for the shipment of cases of hard drives to be physically added to the cloud storage. (This idea is attributed to the late computer scientist, Jim Gray.)   
  • Software packages like MATLAB and Mathematica are now available in versions that can send scientific work to the cloud.
  • There's software called MPI (Multi-Passing Interface) that runs in the cloud and connects multiple supercomputers at once for massive calculating needs. It does have some issues where the various computers may not run seamlessly in synch.
  • Some scientists don't require supercomputers, but could benefit greatly from parallelism--tens or even hundreds of computers computing at the same time via the cloud, which would reduce the TTA or the essential "time to answer." (I don't know about you, but this brings back that scene from The Martian where Rich Pernell plugged his laptop into the supercomputer--and waited and waited for a calculation confirmation--while hunkering down in his parka.)
Probably a case of Cloud-TMI, wasn't it? :)

Have a great week.


  1. (Warning: this stuff is my jam.)
    To make things even more confusing, these categories aren't hard and fast. Many products are some combination of two of them! Also, many vendors let you specify which services you want: Azure has PaaS, IaaS, or even SaaS that you can buy when you want to use "Azure." Amazon's EC2 is IaaS, but their umbrella offering, Amazon Web Services, also has PaaS offerings.
    Some Salesforce employees joke that "when you're working in the cloud, you call it the fog." I may find that funnier than I should.

  2. Awesome, Lee! Thanks for clarifying a couple of points. "When you're working in the cloud, you call it the fog." LOL! Yes, that about sums up my experience.

    Thanks for chiming in!

    *Note to self: Lee knows about this Cloud stuff* :)

    1. If you have any questions, please do ask. It's an interesting subject to me and may save you some time.


Comments set on moderation - all spammers will be exterminated!

About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.