What is cloud computing?

A beginner’s guide

Simply put, cloud computing is the delivery of computing services—including servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and intelligence—over the Internet (“the cloud”) to offer faster innovation, flexible resources, and economies of scale. You typically pay only for cloud services you use, helping you lower your operating costs, run your infrastructure more efficiently, and scale as your business needs change.

Top benefits of cloud computing

Cloud computing is a big shift from the traditional way businesses think about IT resources. Here are seven common reasons organizations are turning to cloud computing services:

Cost

Cloud computing eliminates the capital expense of buying hardware and software and setting up and running on-site datacenters—the racks of servers, the round-the-clock electricity for power and cooling, and the IT experts for managing the infrastructure. It adds up fast.

Speed

Most cloud computing services are provided as self service and on demand, so even vast amounts of computing resources can be provisioned in minutes, typically with just a few mouse clicks, giving businesses a lot of flexibility and taking the pressure off capacity planning.

Global scale

The benefits of cloud computing services include the ability to scale elastically. In cloud speak, that means delivering the right amount of IT resources—for example, more or less computing power, storage, bandwidth—right when they’re needed, and from the right geographic location.

Productivity

On-site data centres typically require a lot of “racking and stacking” – hardware setup, software patching and other time-consuming IT management chores. Cloud computing removes the need for many of these tasks, so IT teams can spend time on achieving more important business goals.

Performance

The biggest cloud computing services run on a worldwide network of secure data centres, which are regularly upgraded to the latest generation of fast and efficient computing hardware. This offers several benefits over a single corporate data centre, including reduced network latency for applications and greater economies of scale.

Reliability

Cloud computing makes data backup, disaster recovery and business continuity easier and less expensive because data can be mirrored at multiple redundant sites on the cloud provider’s network.

Security

Many cloud providers offer a broad set of policies, technologies and controls that strengthen your security posture overall, helping to protect your data, apps and infrastructure from potential threats.

Types of cloud computing

Not all clouds are the same and not one type of cloud computing is right for everyone. Several different models, types, and services have evolved to help offer the right solution for your needs.

First, you need to determine the type of cloud deployment, or cloud computing architecture, that your cloud services will be implemented on. There are three different ways to deploy cloud services: on a public cloud, private cloud, or hybrid cloud.

Public cloud

Public clouds are owned and operated by a third-party cloud service providers, which deliver their computing resources, like servers and storage, over the Internet. Microsoft Azure is an example of a public cloud. With a public cloud, all hardware, software, and other supporting infrastructure is owned and managed by the cloud provider. You access these services and manage your account using a web browser.

Private cloud

A private cloud refers to cloud computing resources used exclusively by a single business or organisation. A private cloud can be physically located on the company’s on-site data centre. Some companies also pay third-party service providers to host their private cloud. A private cloud is one in which the services and infrastructure are maintained on a private network.

Hybrid cloud

Hybrid clouds combine public and private clouds, bound together by technology that allows data and applications to be shared between them. By allowing data and applications to move between private and public clouds, a hybrid cloud gives your business greater flexibility, more deployment options and helps optimise your existing infrastructure, security and compliance.

Types of cloud services: IaaS, PaaS, serverless and SaaS

Most cloud computing services fall into four broad categories: infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), serverless and software as a service (SaaS). These are sometimes called the cloud computing stack because they build on top of one another. Knowing what they are and how they’re different makes accomplishing your business goals easier.

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS)

    The most basic category of cloud computing services. With IaaS, you rent IT infrastructure—servers and virtual machines (VMs), storage, networks, operating systems—from a cloud provider on a pay-as-you-go basis

    Learn more about IaaS
  • Platform as a service (PaaS)

    Platform as a service refers to cloud computing services that supply an on-demand environment for developing, testing, delivering, and managing software applications. PaaS is designed to make it easier for developers to quickly create web or mobile apps, without worrying about setting up or managing the underlying infrastructure of servers, storage, network, and databases needed for development.

    Learn more about PaaS
  • Serverless computing

    Overlapping with PaaS, serverless computing focuses on building app functionality without spending time continually managing the servers and infrastructure required to do so. The cloud provider handles the setup, capacity planning, and server management for you. Serverless architectures are highly scalable and event-driven, only using resources when a specific function or trigger occurs.

    Learn more about serverless computing
  • Software as a service (SaaS)

    Software as a service is a method for delivering software applications over the Internet, on demand and typically on a subscription basis. With SaaS, cloud providers host and manage the software application and underlying infrastructure, and handle any maintenance, like software upgrades and security patching. Users connect to the application over the Internet, usually with a web browser on their phone, tablet, or PC.

    Learn more about SaaS

Uses of cloud computing

You’re probably using cloud computing right now, even if you don’t realize it. If you use an online service to send email, edit documents, watch movies or TV, listen to music, play games, or store pictures and other files, it’s likely that cloud computing is making it all possible behind the scenes. The first cloud computing services are barely a decade old, but already a variety of organizations—from tiny startups to global corporations, government agencies to non-profits—are embracing the technology for all sorts of reasons.

Here are a few examples of what’s possible today with cloud services from a cloud provider:

  • Create new apps and services

    Quickly build, deploy and scale applications – web, mobile and API – on any platform. Access the resources you need to help meet performance, security and compliance requirements.

  • Test and build applications

    Reduce application development cost and time by using cloud infrastructures that can easily be scaled up or down.

  • Store, back up and recover data

    Protect your data more cost-efficiently – and at massive scale – by transferring your data over the Internet to an offsite cloud storage system that’s accessible from any location and any device.

  • Analyse data

    Unify your data across teams, divisions and locations in the cloud. Then use cloud services, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, to uncover insights for more informed decisions.

  • Stream audio and video

    Connect with your audience whenever, wherever, on any device with high-definition video and audio with global distribution.

  • Embed intelligence

    Use intelligent models to help engage customers and provide valuable insights from the data captured.

  • Deliver software on demand

    Also known as software as a service (SaaS), on-demand software lets you offer the latest software versions and updates around to customers – whenever they need it, regardless of where they are.

Microsoft and cloud computing

Microsoft is a leading global provider of cloud computing services for businesses of all sizes. To learn more about the Microsoft cloud platform, our serverless application platform, and how Microsoft Azure compares to other cloud providers, see What is Azure? and Azure vs. AWS.