9 December 2020

Journey into the cloud and beyond

By Dr Brian Loh Chung Shiong

Have you ever shared a photo with a group of friends through a messaging app? How about watching a movie on your computer and then continuing it on your mobile device, right where you left off?

Do you remember the time when you needed some information, and the first thing that you did, was to search for it with your web browser? Whether you realise it or not, all of those actions involve the cloud.

In the simplest terms, the cloud can be thought of as a collection of computers, known as servers, that are accessible via any internet-enabled device including mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and even home appliances like robot vacuums and smart fridges. Servers are housed within physical facilities all around the world, and are owned by multinational technology companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, which represent the top three largest cloud service providers.

A cloud service provider, as the name implies, provides services through the cloud in several models – software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

There are numerous use cases for the SaaS model, some of which are already integrated as part of our common routines. For example, webmail services including Gmail and Outlook enable users to access their inboxes from multiple devices without needing to worry about the backend processes of sending, receiving, and synchronising emails.

Similarly, streaming media services such as YouTube or Netflix automatically format content based on a subscriber’s device and Internet connection speed, to allow for a seamless viewing experience. In essence, the SaaS model provides a variety of convenient services, while removing all concerns on their backend functionalities or how they are maintained.

On the other hand, the PaaS and IaaS models serve consumers with cloud components that act as basic building blocks for deploying software, as well as for creating information technology (IT) architectures. Imagine a scenario whereby a small business owner intends to launch a website for marketing purposes.

One way to achieve that would be to invest in the required hardware and to configure the necessary software for web hosting. However, in the absence of IT knowledge and skills, such a solution could be costly and difficult to implement.

PaaS providers aim to eliminate such complexities by offering platforms which have already taken care of the major components needed to run web applications. A cloud user could subscribe to one of these platforms, upload their content, and with the click of a few buttons, have a website running in a matter of minutes.

Likewise, IaaS can be seen as an expansion of the PaaS model, where a user is given control over specific components within a cloud infrastructure. Experienced users may create virtual cloud resources for computation, storage, security, and more, which function in a manner similar to their physical counterparts (computer, hard disk, firewall, etc.), but without the commitment to purchase or maintain these components.

Consequently, both PaaS and IaaS models provide great flexibility for consumers and business owners in building their web presence.

Although the trend of moving into the cloud began years ago, it has accelerated due to the COVID-19 situation. In recent months, communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have seen increased usage within the majority of organisations. Among their myriad of uses, these cloud services have assisted employees by allowing them to effectively work from home, and transformed the way by which academic institutions conduct learning and teaching activities.

Merchants in food and consumer goods industries have become ever more reliant on e-commerce and delivery platforms, with apps like Shopee, Lazada, Grab, and Foodpanda encountering an influx of users and transactions. The same impact can also be observed in other industries where many companies have migrated their operations onto the cloud infrastructures of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure.

There is little doubt that the cloud holds a multitude of possibilities for the future. As we further adopt cloud services into our daily lives, for personal or commercial use, we embrace opportunities for change. And in this ‘new normal’, it is imperative to attain sufficient understanding of the cloud, as by doing so, we stand to gain from the benefits of its services.

This journey into the cloud and beyond, can begin at the first AWS Academy Member Institution in Borneo, Swinburne Sarawak, which offers cloud computing courses covering the various aspects of creating, managing, designing, and implementing cloud services.

Dr Brian Loh Chung Shiong is an AWS Academy accredited educator and lecturer at the School of Information and Communication Technologies, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at bloh@swinburne.edu.my.