Why the cloud is like custard
by Keris Lahiff
Cloud is one of the most touted, yet barely understood, buzzwords in IT news in recent years. But what exactly is it and how can it help your business soar sky-high?
“Explaining cloud to people I’ve found very, very difficult,” says Jonathan Crossfield, speaking at the Mumbrella360 2011 conference. “It’s quite a shift of thinking for many businesses so I’ve coined various analogies and ways of getting the concept across without delving into lots of technology and jargon.”
As community manager at cloud hosting company Ninefold, Crossfield finds he often has to explain the concept to clients – the best way to explain its complexities, he says, is through one simple analogy: custard.
Why the cloud is to the consumer what the cow is to custard
Let’s start at the beginning. Before mass production of milk, if an individual wanted custard, they bought a cow.
“If you didn’t have a cow, you didn’t have any custard – pure and simple,” he explains. “What we did was over the centuries, we’ve scaled up milk production and the distribution… which means you can go out and buy as much or as little milk as you want on any one day and you never have to go anywhere near the farm or the cow or an udder.
Essentially, milk production has moved into the cloud, whereby consumers have nothing to do with the infrastructure but can access as much or as little custard as they need. Imagine if this weren’t the case and instead consumers bought custard on a plan.
“If I’m throwing a party (every good party has custard), that would mean a spike in the milk resource. If milk was sold to me on a plan, then I would need to choose a plan that allowed me to cover those spikes in custard production and that would mean, in the long-term, probably a lot of spoiled milk,” he says.
“Trouble is this is exactly how most businesses approach their hosting IT infrastructure.”
Businesses often approach hosting infrastructure in one of two ways:
- Through private infrastructure to cope with peak periods, such as servers and hardware, which is “like buying your own field of cows just so that you can make custard”.
- Through a shared or dedicated hosting plan with an external provider, akin to “paying someone else for the milk from their cows”.
So what is the cloud?
Moving away from the custard analogy for a moment, Crossfield says the cloud is similar to how consumers pay for gas, electricity or water – you don’t pay on a plan and you only pay for as much as you use.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology explained cloud computing in a paper for the government as:
“A model for enabling convenient on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (such as, networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”
However, Crossfield says this definition only confuses the matter.
“It’s a horrible definition. You have to read it three times to really get every element in there. So what does it actually mean?”
Essentially, the cloud ticks the following five boxes.
- It’s self service over the internet, whereby you log in online and create the infrastructure yourself.
- It’s scalable on demand, meaning if you need more, you get more, and vice versa.
- It has rapid provisioning, which means you can create and access the infrastructure immediately.
- There is minimal provider contact, so no management fees.
- There is access to a large pool of compute resources, so large in fact that you are never aware of a limit.
Crossfield goes on to stipulate another characteristic of the cloud – virtualisation.
“Your servers don’t actually exist, except as virtual instances on a massive pool of hardware … in the same way that when I go to the shop and buy a bottle of milk, I can’t say this bottle of milk came from Daisy in Mudgee. That milk has been pulled into a massive pool of dairy-produced milk and then extracted,” he says.
“What that means is that if one cow falls sick, the overall milk production isn’t affected at all because you’re not tied to any individual piece of hardware – just like you’re not tied to any individual cow.”
Why use the cloud?
Now you understand what the cloud is, what exactly can it do for you?
Well, first, if you have an online campaign for a limited time, the cloud can help keep costs to a minimum. Instead of outlaying cash on hardware or signing up for a monthly plan, you can set up the virtual infrastructure for that specific project, pay only for what you use, and then switch it off once the campaign is completed.
Cloud computing also has its benefits for those tasks that require a large amount of processing power. Animation company Dreamworks has taken up use of the cloud to minimise how much equipment they need to purchase for use onsite. For example, during production of How to Train Your Dragon, more than two million hours were put through a cloud provider in Mexico.
“They were able to get results faster because they could just scale up as much as they want to be able to produce the best result in the shortest period of time,” says Crossfield.
Within that is another benefit: rapid scalability to cope with traffic spikes.
“You may have one server most days. You can scale up to 10 quite easily, then back to one or two when traffic dies down. The thing is you’re not paying for 10 servers at all times,” says Crossfield.
Online ticket retailer Moshtix saw the benefit in this after experiencing server crashes during peak periods of traffic to their website. During the sale of tickets to major events, Moshtix servers won’t crash, but rather the cloud will amp up its servers to cope with the influx of traffic.
And because you can switch it on and off when needed, cloud computing is ideal for testing and sandboxing campaigns and websites in the initial stages, before an outlay of cash on staff and hardware.
Things to ask before entering the cloud
But before you take the leap and sign up with a cloud-hosting platform or begin constructing your own piece of cloud nine, Crossfield lists five questions you need to ask.
- Is the cloud self-service? You should be able to access on demand and create your infrastructure without waiting periods or management fees.
- Are you charged only for what you consume?
- Is the data stored in Australia? This is important for two reasons – first, because offshore cloud servers can slow access to your data, and second because wherever your data is located is subject to their local jurisdictions. “For example, if you are storing your data on the west coast of the US, you are actually exposed to the US Patriot Act,” says Crossfield.
- Will the provider stick around? And if they do fail, will you be able to access your data? “As we know not every business will make it: some cows turn green,” he says.
- Is the support local and quick, and will it incur an additional expense?
Now equipped with this knowledge, go forth into the cloud.
But before you go, Crossfield offers these final surmising words: “[Cloud] means more custard without the cow. You’re cutting the cow out of the equation here. You can get as much custard as you want and you’re only paying for the custard.”
In other words, cull the cow!
Published on: Thursday, June 30, 2011