Our guide to cloud computing
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to cloud computing

First published date February 20 2014 Amended date February 20 2014

Once upon a time, computers were fairly standalone items. You might connect to the internet using a dial-up modem, but the programs and files on your computer’s hard drive were physically located on your own PC or Mac, accessible only by you, and independent of anyone else’s hardware or software.

By the late Noughties, this model was being challenged by the growth of online data storage and file access. Nobody knows where the term ‘cloud computing’ originated, but it describes the development of a network, connected via the internet, whereby infrastructure like programs and data files are stored offsite in a remote location, providing the same levels of access without physical storage requirements. In this way, a hundred people can use the same computer program without everyone having to download and install it, and employees can view documents from anywhere in the world, rather than needing to sit in front of their office computers. All that’s needed is a stable (and relatively fast) internet connection, such as broadband or 4G.

Free to air

One big advantage of cloud computing is that it saves both individuals and their employers money, while a related benefit concerns increased operating efficiency. Rather than installing expensive software on each computer, a cloud licence can be purchased, allowing all staff members to access the software through a web-based portal or site. Equally, employees who are off sick, stranded due to bad weather or away on business can still access their files from wherever they happen to be, using a plethora of portable devices. It’s no coincidence that the gradual migration towards cloud computing has occurred in tandem with the runaway success of tablets, smartphones and high-speed mobile internet.


Ahead in the clouds

Everyday examples of cloud computing were around long before the term itself gained common currency. Webmail services like Yahoo or Hotmail store a user’s emails remotely, allowing access from a variety of devices over the internet. This is the cloud in action – individual users only see the front end activities, with all the programming and data storage taking place at the back end, which can be in the next room or on another continent.

The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of cloud computing is likely to make it an ever-larger aspect of communications in years to come. A cloud computing course therefore offers an ideal way to become familiar with the benefits of data virtualisation and cloud adoption:

1.      Information can be accessed from anywhere. That frees people from being tied to a specific location (or device), which in turn could facilitate greater home working.

2.      Costs are lower. There’s less need for high-end computing power, since most of the complex processing takes place elsewhere, with correspondingly less demand for local data storage or backup facilities. These savings could support greater business investment or job creation, or simply ensure private users need to spend less cash.

3.      Instant updates are available. Rather than having to keep re-installing (or electronically updating) pre-installed software packages, they will be updated automatically, ensuring cloud users always have access to the very latest versions.

4.      Less IT support is required. These ties back into the costs argument, with less need to have well-salaried computer technicians standing by in case problems arise. All that’s needed to use cloud software is an internet-enabled computer or device.

5.      Greater calculation and processing power. Instead of running up against your terminal’s built-in limitations (RAM, hard drive space, processor speed, etc), cloud computing ensures the hard work is done elsewhere, effectively transforming your front-end device into a display unit and interface – also known as a dumb terminal.

6.      Less risk of data loss. Although cloud computing still stores data on a computer hard drive, this is likely to be in a bespoke and well-protected warehouse, with a duplicate backup in case of disasters. Conversely, home or office computers can be destroyed by threats as diverse as power surges, viruses and floods, resulting in total loss unless users have regularly backed up all their data onto an external device.


Partly cloudy with a chance of malware

One of the biggest concerns about cloud computing relates to the security of personal or corporate information, when it is hosted offsite in an anonymous third-party data warehouse. What if this data is stolen or compromised? Who actually owns it? And how great is the risk of malware (malicious software) hijacking increasingly dumb terminals, stealing login details and then enabling unauthorised users to destroy, steal or tamper with sensitive or personal materials?

Cloud security is a huge issue, and it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the IT sector. Some cloud computing courses will focus on this increasingly key element, reflecting the potential to carve out a lucrative and successful career as a cloud security specialist. Other courses in cloud computing will focus on a more basic introduction to this phenomenon, guiding users through the concepts and practical applications for the cloud, as well as obvious benefits and dangers.


By Neil Cumins