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What is the cloud? A simple guide for small businesses

From public to private and from containers to DevOps, the cloud comes loaded with a heavy load of linguistic baggage. We provide a simple introduction to the cloud, explaining the terms that matter for small businesses looking to increase their agility.

The cloud is now a business-as-normal resource. Its rise to ascendancy has been rapid. What started just over ten years ago as a theoretical way of providing IT solutions on-demand is now a practical reality for both large and small firms alike.

Global spending on the public cloud by businesses is expected to reach $160 billion this year, according to researcher IDC. Spending is forecast to grow 21.9 percent during the next five years, with total investment hitting $277 billion in 2021.

Beneath those headline figures are subtle variations. The cloud is not a destination -- it's a set of services and features that can help a business achieve its aims. But what do those set of services and functions look like?

From public to private and from containers to DevOps, the cloud can be confusing at first, as there is a large amount of technical complexity for newcomers. At a general level, the cloud is best-thought of as a shared pool of resources that end-users can provision rapidly over the internet.

The types of cloud computing

That provision comes in two key forms: public and private. The public cloud is provided over the network by an external organisation that offers services via their own data center infrastructure. Businesses can buy public resources from these providers on-demand, scaling their investment up or down as required.

Unlike the public cloud, the resources in a private cloud are expended on a single enterprise. Private clouds can be managed in-house or by an external partner. While private clouds can help keep a tight grip on data location, they are capital-intensive, meaning the benefits of scalability associated to the public cloud are often negated.

The hybrid cloud sits between public and private provision. Hybrid allows firms to combine private IT resources with public cloud provision. Companies might, for example, choose to keep some data in the private cloud, but to burst to the public cloud as business demands flex.

It is also worth noting that some firms choose to draw on a multi-cloud approach to development. This broad approach allows businesses to use provision from a host of providers. By developing this broad ecosystem of hybrid provision, organisations can spread some of their risk and take advantage of the disparate capabilities of third-party cloud providers.

As-a-service models

Across all these forms of development, businesses can use a range of as-a-service models. These models represent different levels of the computing stack upon which users will access cloud resources through their client, be that a browser, app or computing device. Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) is the foundational layer upon which organisations deploy operating systems and applications.

Platform as a service (PaaS) is the control layer through which businesses deploy cloud-based infrastructure resources. PaaS, in short, is the development environment for application developers. The final stack, software as a service (SaaS), is the customer-facing layer of the cloud. End users access a range of provider-based applications for various tasks - such as productivity, human resources, sales and finance - through their clients.

Other service-model types also exist. Serverless computing is a specialist approach that means end-user organisations do not have to provision servers to run code. In serverless computing, an external provider runs virtual, cloud-based machines on the business' behalf to serve specific requests.

Cloud application approaches

These varied forms of development, and their associated service models, allow organisations to take advantage of other closely-related approaches to the cloud. Some of these approaches are bubbling to the surface now. The smart application of these approaches could give small businesses a competitive advantage.

Take containerisation, which gives businesses the opportunity to run an application in a container with its own operating environment. Containerisation allows firms to provision resources efficiently and to run multiple application containers on the same infrastructure.

DevOps, on the other hand, is a collection of development practices and tools that supports the rapid delivery of applications. In combination with containerisation and the hybrid models of cloud computing, it gives organisations of all sizes the opportunity to start thinking more flexibly about the applications they create and the resources they consume.

Small businesses and cloud computing

What emerges is a model of modern cloud computing that's perfect for today's SMBs. This model gives small businesses the chance to keep pace with the responsiveness demanded by modern, fast-changing business operations. Open by design, smaller organisations can use the cloud to take control of how they provision IT resources in response to new operational requirements.