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What is cloud computing?

it engineer in server room with a laptop
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What is cloud computing? In short, cloud computing is when providers deliver on-demand access to hosted computing services, such as cloud storage or software, over the internet.

What does cloud computing do?

With cloud computing, your data and software aren’t stored on your own infrastructure or in the same physical location as you. It’s all hosted elsewhere and you rent access to it.

  • Cloud computing now underpins many everyday tasks. If you’ve sent a message using Gmail, backed up your phone’s photos online, or watched a film on Netflix, you’ve used the cloud.
  • One form of cloud computing is Infrastructure as a Service. Rather than relying on your own hardware, you can rent virtual servers and storage from cloud providers.
  • Another is Software as a Service. Google Workspace is an example of an office software suite available on a subscription basis—both the software itself and the files that you create using it are hosted on the cloud.
  • There’s also Platform as a Service (PaaS). This is a more advanced model aimed at software developers, where the cloud providers host software development tools.

iCloud being used to access photos on a phone and a laptop.

With services like iCloud, you can access your files and photos from all your devices. (Image credit: Apple)

How departments can use cloud computing

Cloud computing can benefit all departments within a company. Let’s look at a few examples of how the operations of the IT and marketing departments may specifically be affected by cloud services.

IT

The job of the IT team will be significantly changed when a business transfers to cloud computing. With a streamlined on-premises IT infrastructure, systems will require less maintenance. In fact, with more services now managed by cloud providers, there is less need for small and medium businesses to have skilled IT technicians in-house.

However, the IT team will have to manage the administration of the business’s cloud products. Most cloud providers give users access to a range of administration tools, from which the IT team will need to manage user permissions, security settings, audit logs, etc.

Rather than use a public cloud provider, large companies may want to maintain a private cloud, where cloud services are hosted on infrastructure owned by the company. In this case, the IT team will need to be specially trained in managing cloud systems.

Marketing

Members of a marketing team may frequently travel, such as to represent the company at events or take promotional photos or videos of a product in use. In these cases, cloud technology will make their job significantly easier. 

If a marketer needs to access any company files while out of the office, they can do so on their mobile device. Any work created, including photo and video files, can be uploaded to the cloud. This means it’s safely backed up and can be immediately accessed by the team back at the office.

Marketing teams can also make use of the collaborative features offered by cloud services. For example, marketing copy written on cloud-based software can be read and edited by another team member, and then approved or go through compliance with another.

Others

Collaborative project management tools, such as Airtable, can be used to integrate the work of myriad departments such as marketing, sales, content, legal, and IT, to optimise workflows and improve internal comms.

A woman uses a computer near a large data server

Your cloud computing files will be stored on a secure data server. (Image credit: Unsplash)

Features and benefits of cloud computing

Cloud computing gives you access to your files wherever you are. With increasing numbers of employees working from home, the traditional model of data being stored at the office can make it difficult for home workers to access their files. 

But with your files stored on the cloud, you and your employees can access them wherever you are. Besides from computers, you can access your files from mobile phones and tablets, which means employees can access their work even on the go.

Cloud providers make collaboration easy. With files stored on hard drives the traditional way, you may have attempted to have multiple employees work on the same file, only to overwrite each other’s work.

But a good cloud provider makes it easy for multiple users to work on the same file simultaneously. There should even be collaborative features built into the software, such as the ability to add comments to a file and a webchat.

Your files are safe from loss on the cloud. If your hardware fails, you could lose your valuable files if you only store your data locally. This is more common than you might think—files can be lost for many reasons, including hardware deteriorating with age, infection from a virus, or user error. 

But all reliable cloud providers securely back up the data that they store. With your files on the cloud, you don’t need to worry about losing them.

Cloud computing offers elasticity. When buying physical computer infrastructure, you can never be sure how much you’ll need. You could easily not buy enough and have to re-invest or buy too much and have excess capacity lying around unused.

With cloud computing, you can easily scale up and down as and when you need to. Many providers offer several plans based on various levels of requirement, and it’s typically easy to switch between them.

Cloud computing lowers IT costs. You may be worried that the subscription fees for a cloud service could add up, but they’re more than countered by the savings that you’ll make elsewhere. 

With your data in the cloud, you don’t need to spend extra money buying and maintaining your own hardware or facilities. You also won’t need a large IT team because you can rely on your cloud provider’s technicians to handle data operations.

How much does cloud computing cost?

The cost of cloud computing varies depending on what you want, but most providers have flexible models with several different options, so you only have to pay for what you need. 

On the most basic level, some providers offer storage and software for free. For example, Google offers individual users 15GB of Drive storage and access to its cloud-hosted office software, free of charge.

Small to medium businesses with multiple employees will want to look at the next level up from this, where more storage and software is provided alongside greater administration and collaboration tools. For example, Dropbox’s standard business plan costs $12.50/user/month and comes with 5TB of storage per user. Competitors including Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 have equivalent plans with similar pricing.

For larger companies that want their full infrastructure hosted on the cloud, or a PaaS development platform, the cost can be much higher, sometimes even in the tens of thousands of dollars. In these cases, you’ll have to approach a provider for a bespoke quote.

Dropbox’s list of rates for business cloud computing plans

Dropbox offers a range of affordable cloud storage plans for small and medium businesses. (Image credit: Dropbox)

Cloud computing FAQ

What is the purpose of cloud computing?

Cloud computing aims to make software and infrastructure available to individuals and businesses over the internet on an on-demand basis. It enables its users to take advantage of the services that it provides, without the need for their own infrastructure or computing expertise. 

It can help users cut costs via an economy of scale. For example, renting space on a shared server is cheaper than buying and maintaining your own server hardware.

Is cloud computing secure?

It’s natural to worry about the security of files you’ve stored on cloud servers that are out of your control. But cloud storage may actually be more secure than keeping data on your own drives.

Most reliable cloud providers have state-of-the-art security systems in place. Your files are encrypted, which makes it much harder for hackers to access them. Also, there are built-in firewalls, and many providers have technicians constantly updating the security to adapt to new threats. 

What are the types of cloud computing?

There are two main types of cloud computing: public and private clouds. You’re most likely to have worked with a public cloud, which is where the infrastructure is owned and operated by a third-party provider such as Google or Microsoft.

There are also private clouds, which is where a private cloud environment is provided to a single company or group and often hosted by that company’s own data center. There are hybrid clouds, which combine two or more public and private clouds. 

What are the disadvantages of cloud computing?

One disadvantage of cloud computing is that the process of cloud migration—moving your existing data and apps to the cloud—can be more time-consuming and costly than you’d expect. There will also be inevitable troubles for employees adapting to a new system. 

Another problem is that with many systems, you can only access your apps and files when you have an internet connection. This can cause frustration if your connection drops when you’re trying to access work.

Why is it called cloud computing?

The term “cloud computing” is often thought to refer to the ethereal nature of data hosted in the cloud—your data isn’t on hardware tangible to you but is outside of your infrastructure, seemingly floating around as if on a cloud.

However, the cloud symbol dates back to the 1970s, when early network engineers needed a symbol to represent networks of computing equipment. They landed on the cloud, a symbol previously used to represent the telephone network.

Main takeaways

  • Cloud computing is when a provider offers on-demand access to services, such as software or storage, over the internet.
  • There are many benefits to cloud computing, including accessing files remotely and collaborating on them with your team.
  • Cloud features can be used by all departments within a company, including marketing, but migrating to the cloud will mostly change the working practices of the IT team.
  • Your data stored on the cloud is protected from both accidental loss and hackers. In fact, it’s likely safer and more secure than if it were stored on your own system.
  • The price of a cloud system can vary significantly, from free basic plans to full infrastructure solutions, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

More on cloud computing

If you want to read more about cloud computing, a good place to start is our guide to the best cloud storage providers for businesses. You may also be interested in our 5 top cloud data storage tips for businesses.

Kieron Moore

Kieron Moore is a freelance writer based in Manchester, England. He contributes to Future sites including TechRadar and Creative Bloq, focusing on subjects including creative software, video editing, and streaming services. This work draws on his experience as an independent filmmaker and an independent TV watcher. He can be found on Twitter at @KieronMoore, usually when he’s meant to be writing.