Finding answers in the cloud

Conversations about the cloud have a tendency to very quickly get murky, but strip away the jargon and the technology can be easily understood

Michele Neylon, co-founder and chief executive, Blacknight

‘There is no cloud. Cloud is just someone else’s computer’. Something of an old saw in the IT world, this remark may be dismissive, but it is useful. For a start, it neatly explains what cloud actually is and, secondly, it punctures the excessive marketing jargon common in the tech world.

So, what is the cloud?

“Cloud is a term that means everything and nothing. It’s also often thrown around by people who don’t know what it means,” said Michele Neylon, co-founder and chief executive of Blacknight.

In practical terms, cloud is actually easy to understand, cloud computing is a model of computer use in which services that are available on the internet are provided to users on a temporary basis. In other words, computational power and storage are rented, rather than bought.

People think cloud is somehow cheaper, but that is not necessarily the case

It’s not new, either, harking back to the dreams of a ‘network computer’ expressed by Oracle boss Larry Ellison in the 1990s who hoped to dethrone Microsoft by centralising processing away from the desktop PC. In fact, squint a bit and cloud arguably even has an antecedent in the mainframe model of the 1960s, with customers leasing the processing power they need rather than buying it.

Today, cloud typically means renting capacity to run applications from one of the three big so-called ‘public cloud’ players. But there is more to it than that.

“On the one hand you have the providers like Amazon, Microsoft Azure and Google. You also have public cloud from smaller providers like ourselves, and then you have private cloud,” Neylon said.

Typically, private cloud is deployed for workloads where the perception is that public cloud is not the right fit. This could be for reasons of cost, but control is equally important.

“One of the issues with public cloud is you don’t get fine-grained control over things like IP addresses,” he said.

“The reputation of an IP address can really matter. If you’re using it for storage, that's fine. If you're using it for compute, that’s fine too. But there are times when it's not good to have one that may, in the past, have been used for something malicious.”

Similarly, with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now in force, cloud users storing personally identifying information (PII) need to know that their data remains in the EU and isn’t served from or backed up to Britain, the United States, China or anywhere else.

On top of that, cloud cost spirals have been a topic of conversation in the tech press for some time, too. Misconfiguration is one common source of unexpected bills, but others include applications not being suited to a consumption-based model or malicious bot attacks.

“If you are throwing large amounts of data around on a daily basis, that can get very expensive very quickly,” Neylon said.

“People think cloud is somehow cheaper, but that is not necessarily the case.”

Cheaper or not, the general direction of travel today is toward the cloud, and with it toward IT as current expenditure rather than capital investment. Will this change? Certainly, cloud seems to go against the nature of the personal computing revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, by putting power back in the hands of a few centralised operations.

However, oscillations from centralisation to decentralisation and back are nothing new in IT, Neylon said.

“We’ve been here before, and we’ll be here again,” he said.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Not even clouds.