What is “Cloud Computing”?

January 29, 2013

Blog

In this post, we try to briefly introduce “Cloud Computing,” and what it means to nonprofit organizations.


untitled-design-3Cloud Computing (or “The Cloud”) is a term that is constantly used by individuals and organizations about technology products and services. But what does it really mean? The answer: it depends!

At its core, cloud computing is a shared use of individual computing resources for a particular product or service. The hallmark of cloud computing is physical redundancy. Multiple physical computers (or servers) make up one cloud. If one computer or server on a cloud crashes, then the product or service that cloud provides remains available.

The following is a simplified example of how the cloud can work:
Traditionally, companies and nonprofit organizations would purchase individual servers for individual tasks. For example, an organization might spend $1,000 to buy a physical Microsoft Exchange email server. If anything happened to that particular server (such as a failed hard drive or bad power supply), then that organization’s email would be unavailable until the physical problem could be addressed.

With cloud computing, an organization might purchase five physical servers, turn them into one cloud, and run the applications (such as Microsoft Exchange) inside this cloud. So we see that not only is there physical redundancy (if one of the five servers crashes, all ten applications could theoretically remain available), but we also see higher levels of efficiency, because each application shares computing resources with the other applications, and more applications can be installed. There is no longer a 1:1 ratio as there sometimes was with running an application on a physical server.

This particular example leaves many details out on how this cloud is built or what physical servers were purchased. But the point remains the same, and the message is clear: Cloud computing brings redundancy and efficiency.

The imaginary cloud explained earlier is actually less common. This cloud is a private cloud – a single organization owns and manages all of the underlying physical servers, as well as the applications running on the cloud. The more common approach is to rent cloud “resources” from a third party provider in the form of infrastructure or service. For example, Sales Force is a Cloud Service. Another provider that is more common for nonprofit organizations is several of Blackbaud’s services, such as eTapestry.

People and businesses are adopting cloud computing at higher rates each year. There are several types of cloud services (Infrastructure as a Service – IaaS, Software as a Service – SaaS, etc…), and the possibilities of what a nonprofit organization can do with the cloud are huge.

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