How Do You Define Cloud Computing?

New technology that experiences high growth rates will inevitably attract hyperbole. Cloud computing is no exception, and almost everyone has his or her own definition of cloud from “it’s on the internet” to a full-blown technical explanation of the myriad compute options available from a given cloud service provider.

Cloud Adoption Success Factor: Understand the Cloud Essentials.

Knowing what is and what is not a cloud service can be confusing. Fortunately, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has provided us with a cloud computing definition that identifies “five essential characteristics.”

On-demand self-service. A consumer [of cloud services] can unilaterally provision computing capabilities, such as server time and network storage, as needed, automatically without requiring human interaction with each service provider.

Read: Get what you want, when you want it, with little fuss.

Broad network access. Capabilities are available over the network and accessed through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, laptops and workstations).

Read: Anyone, anywhere can access anything you build for them.

Resource pooling. The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand.

Read: Economies of scale on galactic proportions.

Measured service. Cloud systems automatically control and optimize resource usage by providing a metering capability as appropriate to the type of service (e.g., storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts). Resource usage can be monitored, controlled and reported, providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service.

Read: Get what you want, when you want it, then give it back … and only pay for what you use.

Rapid elasticity. Capabilities can be elastically provisioned and released, in some cases automatically, to scale rapidly outward and inward commensurate with demand. To the consumer, the capabilities available for provisioning often appear unlimited and can be appropriated in any quantity at any time.

Read: Get what you want, when you want it … then give it back.

Each of these five characteristics must be present, or it is just not a cloud service, regardless of what a vendor may claim. Now that public cloud services exist that fully meet this cloud computing definition, you — the consumer of cloud services — can log onto one of the cloud service providers’ dashboards and order up X units of compute capacity, Y units of storage capacity and toss in other services and capabilities as needed. Your IT team is not provisioning any of the hardware, building images, etc., and this all happens within minutes vs. the weeks it would normally take in a conventional on-premise scenario.

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