Introduction to the Cloud

Working in IT, I frequently find that many of my friends and family approach me when it comes to anything “computer” related, with most having very little knowledge about IT in general.

One of the most mysterious topics for them is the Cloud. They often hear sentences similar to, “it is in the cloud“, or they own devices like an iPhones and find themselves receiving messages that their “cloud storage is almost full“.

However in reality they don’t really know what that means or understand what they should do.

This post is to help those that don’t understand the Cloud, making certain terminology understandable and hopefully take away the mystery of the Cloud.

Before you start

About this post:

  • 2 – 7 min average reading time
  • Suitable for beginner to intermediate

What you will gain reading this post:

  • Provide an understanding of what is the Cloud
  • Provide an understanding of frequently asked questions about the Cloud

What you can do to help support:

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Now, let’s begin.

Let’s explore some terminology

What is a Server?

server is a computer or system that provides resources, data, services, or programs to other computers, known as clients, over a network.

https://www.paessler.com/it-explained/server

What is a Network?

network is two or more computers (or other electronic devices) that are connected together, usually by cables or Wi-Fi. Some computer networks will have a server.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zc6rcdm/revision/1

What is a Data Center?

data centre is a dedicated facility where computer systems, data storage and associated telecommunications equipment are located.

https://capital.uk.com/data-centre/data-centre-basics-for-dummies

What is an API?

An API is simply something that sends information back and forth between a website or app and a user.

https://apimetrics.io/api-knowledge-base/apis-for-dummies

What is a Service?

A service is an offering or capability that is provided by an individual or business that may or may not incur a cost to use.

What is a Web Interface?

Web Interface allows the user to interact with content or software running on a remote server via a web browser. The content or web page is downloaded from the web server and the user can interact with this content in a web browser, which acts as a client.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/computer-science/web-user-interface

Now, what is the Cloud?

In its most basic form the Cloud is nothing more than “someone else’s” server or a network of “someone else’s” computers that you access over the internet, they are most commonly accessed via a Web Interface or set of API’s.

Cloud - Simplified Representation
Cloud – Simplified Representation

As you can see the cloud itself is not that mysterious as you may have once thought, and understanding the terminology surrounding it, makes it much more clearer.

Okay, thanks for that, but I have a few questions

Why not just host your own servers or network of computers?

There are a few factors that come into play here.

  • Hosting these network of computers, in what we refer to as a data center.

Data centers are expensive to administer and run.

  • Usually a dedicated team maintain them.
  • Apart from the standard operations costs, you have costs such as electricity, cooling etc
  • There is a risk of over provisioning or underprivising the hardware which inflates the cost or leads to poor performance, or leads to paying for underutilized servers.

On top of the running and administering of the network of computers (the physical side), there is also (the software side) to consider.

  • A system administrator usually maintain them.
  • The system administrator typically produces a “hardened” image, this is a trusted artefact that runs on the server, it is typically an operating system and pre installed applications, this process goes through a series of audits, with a strong security lens applied and requires a team of technical experts.

How do I know where all my data is?

Unless you have compliance requirements or don’t want your data stored in specific geographical locations, then in general it should not be much of a concern, and unless the Organisation discloses this information it can be hard to tell.

Your attention would be better focused on privacy and how they use your data.

Which I touch on in the next question Is my data secure?

Another aspect is the underlying cloud provider (AWS, GCP, Azure, …) that is chosen and the technologies and patterns the Organisation has chosen to utilise that can influence the location of your data.

The short answer: You can’t know precisely, though most of your actual file data is on Google or Amazon servers. 

The long answer: Apple disclosed in its iOS Security Guide in January 2018 that it stored iCloud file data in both Amazon and Google’s commercial cloud storage systems (Amazon S3 and Google Cloud).

example from MacWorld on Apple – https://www.macworld.com/article/3274584/where-does-apple-stores-your-icloud-data.html

Once we know the above, we then need to delve a little deeper, and this is where you will need to have an understand of the technology.

In this particular example, we see the following in the diagram below:

  • Amazon S3 (the source – where your data is living – long term storage)
    • data is stored in the US
  • However using CloudFront (a CDN – cache – short term storage) and Edge Locations (locations around the globe – in major cities)
    • data, when access from a geographical location, can cache in that major city for a quicker response to the data you are accessing

So in this example, your data would live in US – Ohio, but also temporarily in an Edge Location of Sydney and London.

Data in Multiple Geo Locations - Simplified Representation
Data in Multiple Geo Locations – Simplified Representation

The diagram above is a really simplified representation.

This particular example above talks about AWS and if you want to find out more technical details regarding AWS services, then I suggest you look at CloudFront, S3 and Edge Locations.

Is my data secure?

Short answer: It depends, because of a Shared Responsibility Model.

  • The cloud providers (AWS, GCP, Azure, …) offer a range of services and security practises to ensure they protect your data,
  • It is purely depends on the organisation and what process they make use of to ensure your data is secure.

Long answer: This question can become a bit complex and here is why.

There are a couple of aspects to consider:

  • The hosting aspect of your data that can sometimes be difficult to determine
  • Then the privacy and policies in regards to how they use data

I won’t go deep into the privacy of your data, but you should always:

  • be aware of the services you use and what the company’s policy is with your data
  • always refer to the terms and conditions of the service you are using.

Hosting of your data

Let’s take a look at Apple as an example again.

From the above question How do I know where all my data is? It is visible that Apple make use of AWS and GCP, so we can feel good about the cloud hosting services, but what about the security policies?

Data security. iCloud secures your information by encrypting it when it’s in transit, storing it in iCloud in an encrypted format, and using secure tokens for authentication. For certain sensitive information, Apple uses end-to-end encryption.Apr 9, 2020

https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202303

A few best practises to look for are:

  • Has encryption be done on your data?
    • Both in-transit (https) and at rest
    • If the organisation has a data breach, what information can be exposed?
  • Is Multi Factor Authentication protecting the account?
  • Is there monitoring and alerting, to inform you or incidents or potential suspicious behaviour?

A few additional things to consider:

  • Has there been any data breaches?
  • What has been done to prevent another incident?

Here is an example of where these best practises never happened and were introduced after an incident.

Privacy

I won’t be delving much into privacy, but try to remember

  • Social media products are notorious for collecting and selling your data as well as using your data in a way you may not wish it to be
  • Always check your privacy settings and if you don’t agree with how they use your data, then avoid those products.

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If you have additional questions you would like answered, post them in the comments and i’ll update this post to answer them.

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Author: Robert Leggett

I am a passionate, pragmatic and focused leader for people and technology. I love to converse in Spanish, play video games and spend time with my family.

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