Getting to Know Cloud Computing Services

For small businesses, cloud services can keep processes sound and efforts efficient.

We can't seem to have a conversation about business or technology these days without referencing "the cloud." But how many people are familiar with the cloud's history? And do you know what cloud services could do for your small business?

Cloud computing has actually been around for longer than you might guess — 50 years or so. In the 1960s, J. C. R. Licklider introduced the idea of an "intergalactic computer network," and John McCarthy suggested, in a speech at MIT, that computing might one day be sold as a utility, like electricity or water.

Now, after decades on the perimeter, cloud computing is really trending — and for good reason. We're creating and processing enormous amounts of data every day, and high-speed data networks and virtualization have made the technology more reliable. For small businesses, cloud services can keep processes sound and efforts efficient.

Getting to Know Cloud Services

What kinds of services are we talking about? You can invest in cloud services at three different levels:

  • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS): With IaaS, the provider gives you a virtual computer — raw storage, firewalls, load balancers and networks. You install the operating system (OS) and application software on your machine, and you maintain each. Wide area connectivity relies on the Internet or, in carrier clouds, on virtual private networks. Rates typically depend on how much storage you need.
  • Platform as a Service (PaaS): PaaS offers you a platform stack that can include the OS, programming language, execution environment, database and web server. You don't have to buy or manage the underlying hardware or software. Some PaaS systems automatically scale users' computing and storage resources, which means you don't have to bother with manual allocation. Rates and fee scales are very much in flux, so be sure to do your research before committing to a contract.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS): The SaaS provider installs and operates application software in the cloud; you access it through a cloud client. There's no need to install and run the application on your machine. Since you don't manage the infrastructure or platform, you don't worry about maintenance or support. Typically, you pay a flat fee per user.

Starting Small: Storing Your Stuff in the Cloud

Online storage can be a smart, affordable entr?e to cloud computing, whether you're looking to free up storage space on your system, back up files offsite or both. It's a popular element of cloud computing, and new services are popping up every day — some with a specific focus, like email or digital photo storage.

Most online storage services allow you to store a limited amount of data at little or no cost. Your fees increase with the amount of storage you need.

Cloud services are gaining ground fast, in part because people are discovering how much the cloud can help small businesses. With more providers offering a range of services, now could be the right time to make them work for you.