6 Things You Didn’t Know About The Cloud

Servers in the data center
Baran Azdemir—Getty Images

You’re probably using it right now, and don’t even realize it

If there’s one technological advance that’s been as big — if not bigger than — smartphones and touchscreen computers in the past 10 years, it’s cloud computing. But the big problem with recognizing the amazing effect that the cloud has had on the world is that it’s all pretty nebulous. You can’t see data floating around the world like you can see iPhones in people’s hands.

“Data has a really amazing power of changing the world and enabling people to make decisions — fact-based decisions,” says Francois Ajenstat, vice president of product management for Seattle-based Tableau, a company that provides visualization tools so people can to better understand the meaning behind our rich troves of data. “I’m bullish that the cloud is transforming every single industry around the world. It’s a new way, and a faster way, of enabling us to do more than ever before.”

But what does that mean, for you? These six things you didn’t know about the cloud will help answer that question:

1. You’ve probably been using the cloud since the 1990s—you just didn’t realize it

One of the earliest companies to use the cloud was ADP Payroll Services, the company that probably cuts your paycheck. Back in the 1990s, this firm signed up tons of companies to take the recurring task of cutting checks out of businesses’s hands, and automated it using the web. It was one of the earliest instances of the web existing for a dynamic service, rather than as a static webpage. And now, especially if you get direct deposit, we can’t imagine life without it.

2. You’re probably using the cloud right now

Whether it’s being used by Facebook or Uber, the cloud is a combination of software and data that renders a service able to be fed through the web to your screen.

For instance, take your iPhone’s photo-syncing service, iCloud, which makes the pictures on your handheld match the images on your computer. If your phone was offline and you took a picture, the phone’s software would capture and save that image. And when the iPhone got back online, whether it was through a cellular connection or Wi-Fi internet, the data it saved (your photo) would be sent to the cloud to be stored, then delivered to your computer’s software, the next time that machine is online.

So whether it’s managing your photos, figuring out which Facebook posts to serve you, or telling you the closest Uber car, the cloud is the infrastructure used to calculate and deliver those services.

3. The cloud has made it easier to run and grow a company

Why build when you can rent? That’s the question posed to many fast-growing companies, and one that the cloud has answered for many.

“If I were to build a company in the old world, I’d think, ‘I need to build a building, I need to think about the number of offices based upon the number of people I’ll need,’” says Ajenstat. “In the new cloud world, there is no such thing as building a building — you’re actually leveraging another building that was built somewhere else, and you’ll add offices as you grow.”

So, for instance, companies like Salesforce have helped burgeoning firms quickly automate their sales processes, and services like Workforce take the sting out of financial and human resources growing pains.

4. The cloud both uses and creates Big Data

You may not have the foggiest clue what the difference between the cloud and big data is, but Ajenstat does. “The cloud is a catalyst for Big Data,” he says. “Big Data is the result of a number of different technologies, including the cloud . . . to me, the cloud has become the accelerant, the fuel, that’s helped Big Data become even bigger.”

Actually, when Ajenstat hears the term Big Data, he laughs because, in his view, the majority of the world’s data is small data. The “favorite” on your Twitter post, the amount of registered voters in your district, the salary cap numbers from all the NFL football teams — these are all examples of how small bits of information make up big data. The cloud can churn through all of this information in a variety of ways, whether it’s making your smart thermostat turn on or plotting an x/y chart, and the result is, frankly, even more data.

5. The cloud is exposing social problems

If it seems like people have been shining a lot of light on the cracks of society’s foundation lately, it’s because they have. From the gender wage gap to crime and policing statistics, lots of public information is available for people to crunch using cloud computing.

Companies like Xactly are using this data to spur change, in their instance by slicing and dicing compensation data to show that women deserve to be paid more. But there are also safety issues that the cloud can help to solve. For instance, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown, the National Resources Defense Council released a map detailing the radiation fallout areas around U.S. nuclear power plants. That’s life-saving information that would have taken much more time to assemble before the cloud was around.

6. Anyone can analyze the cloud

You don’t have to be a data scientist to unlock the digital mysteries floating invisibly all around us (but honestly, it couldn’t hurt). Whether it’s pulling datasets from the government, gathering public health statistics, combing through NASA climate data, or just looking at what people are searching for on Google, there are limitless sources of information online, most of which are available for free.

And tools like Tableau Public can help people to parse it and tell a great story. “When you have all this data, we believe that actually being able to see it — just like a picture is worth 1,000 words — will help you more quickly understand the pattern,” says Ajenstat. So whether it’s plotted it on a map, a bar chart, or a scatter chart, the numbers — once filtered through the cloud — can form powerful images and give us a clearer view of the world.

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