Making Sense of the Cloud

I remember buying my first computer. It was 1996, an ‘AST Advantage’ – a monolithic beast of a machine boasting 16MB of RAM and a 60MHz processor. I think the hard drive was around 40MB.

Imagine my dismay when Microsoft released Age of Empires, demanding a minimum specification of 100MHz. My machine wouldn’t run it – my multi-thousand pound machine – and I had to look at upgrading. Familiar? The spec-chasing world was borne out of improving application-layer technologies. For me, games. For enterprises, server-side software and productivity applications led the way.

Nowadays, we’re seeing something of a retreat on the spec-pushing front. What’s driving this? Certainly in part it’s the adoption of a ‘devices as tools’ mentality – your sizeable hard drive is no longer an adequate way to be compensating for something – but additionally, we’ve seen the rise of ‘remote computing’. This article is going to simplify what’s really going on here. If terms like ‘server-side’, ‘SaaS’ or ‘Runtime’ fill you with dread – or even minor dismay – I’m here to help you make sense of it all.

There’s you, and then there’s the cloud

When Microsoft threw the Age of Empires spanner in my works, I couldn’t run it because the machine that I owned – the hunk of plastic sitting on my desk – wasn’t brainy enough to figure out how to run it. Using cloud computing, this is how we’d solve that issue.

  1. Find some ‘remote infrastructure’, connect to the ‘platform’ and run the ‘application’ remotely.
    1. This means ‘a more powerful, or more highly-optimised machine somewhere that isn’t where you are’. In other words, let’s imagine my mate three doors down was happily razing cities and cultivating crops on his new, Age of Empires-capable PC. If he were to loan out his spare computing power – and I bet the guy had plenty of it (the sort to compensate) – for me to use, I’d need to hook my machine up to his.
    2. Being three doors down is a bit of a barrier to running a cable between the two machines. So, I’d need to connect to his computer over some kind of network. Nowadays we have the all-sparkling and very speed broadband networks to put to use, so I’d hook up my computer to his platform (whatever he’s running as an Operating System, like Windows) via the internet.
    3. Now that I’m controlling his Operating System from my house – you could say, ‘remotely controlling’ it, I can make it play Age of Empires. I can send it commands from my computer – easy enough even for my AST Advantage – and receive a video stream of what’s happening on his computer. I could use my browser to watch this stream, or a ‘thin’ – that is, not very computationally-intensive – ‘client’ application on my AST. So, I’ve turned my computer in to a ‘client’ to his ‘server’

So, in this article we’ve started to build up a user-friendly picture to answer the question what is cloud computing? In the next article, we’ll extend that towards the slightly more technical aspects of what’s going on.

Remember those spec-driven days fondly? Don’t think they’re over just yet? Let us know by dropping a comment in to the section below.