Sales men and women throw around the word 'cloud' like it is the cure-all formula for the modern IT world.
But what exactly is the cloud?
From a technical standpoint, it's an off-site data centre - a building in an office park or a remote industrial estate, with racks and racks of servers and network equipment all storing and processing various amounts of data.
But what makes it different to your in-house server room?
First up is the internet connection. The normal ADSL does not cut it, especially when dealing with thousands of machines, all of which need to be online and running for business-critical applications. At the very least a data centre will use 10gbps fibre connection (and that just the smaller ones). But since many data centres are also managed by Internet service providers and connected straight to the internet backbones, they can reach speed in excess of 100gbps.
The internet connection itself is not the only advantage to outsourcing infrastructure to the cloud. Another is temperature. A lot of heavy, beefy servers all processing important data generates a lot of heat. In fact, Google has a data centre in Belgium where there are no air conditioning units and it gets so hot most work must be done in climate controlled rooms.
Most, if not all other cloud data centres have embraced the air-conditioning unit. No, not the one you bicker with your colleagues over if it is too hot or cold - these are large industrial units designed to keep the server rooms nice and cool so they can process data efficiently.
One server can use between 500 to 1200 watts per hour, so data centres need a lot of power. Depending on their size, the required power can be anywhere between 10 Megawatts to 150 Megawatts. Keeping in mind, that a Megawatt is about a million watts, and the average electric locomotive motor has a power output of about 5 to 6, this is an incredible amount of energy.
Of course, keeping the lights on in a data centre is vital, since a simple power outage can affect hundreds if not thousands of customers. This means many data centres have large industrial batteries in place, ready to switch over at the first sign of a power cut, keeping service up and running.
One of the most important features of a data centre is security. Data centres must be physically secure; most data centres are ordinary looking buildings surrounded with security cameras. They are also very strict on who can enter and their locations are never advertised to the public. Only those who provide ID and who have already been cleared access in advance can access the data centre.
The data centre gives the cloud provider a safe space to store expensive network equipment with the required power, internet connection and physical security the modern world needs.