Defining the Cloud – Strengths and Weaknesses

Cloud Servers

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When it comes to picking a web host for your company, there used to be two key offerings, both on different ends of the spectrum in terms of performance and price. On the low end was shared hosting, where web hosts have hundreds, if not thousands, of customers onto servers. The rationale being that the majority of customers would not come close to using all the resources in their plan, meaning that when a host offers you “unlimited” or astronomical amounts of resources for just a few bucks a month, it is too good to be true. Similar to overbooking in the airline industry, the term for the previously mentioned practice in the hosting industry is called “overselling.”

On the high end of hosting lies dedicated server packages, plans which give you your own complete server, separate from other customers. However, such plans often cost upwards of $100/month although, if you need server management assistance, the monthly price often goes up to over $300/month for an entry level package.

Given the choice between a shared or dedicated plan, you might ask why a company would foot the premium in costs. The answer is that when it comes to shared hosting, you have no control over the server, and if another site is breached, your site also can be brought down fairly easily.

Although shared hosting remains a popular option for companies just leaping into cyberspace, many hosts have begun offering “Cloud” hosting solutions alongside traditional plans. Although it sounds like a futuristic technology, at its foundation cloud computing uses the same principles as mainframes dating back to the 1970s. In an interview about the recent surge of cloud technology, Jason Reis, the owner of Flehx Corp – a consulting firm focused on PHP software development, and server administration – summed up cloud computing as a group of computers which are clustered (grouped together) as one system which can be split into various slices as needed.

Additionally, Reis mentionedVirtual Private Server (VPS) systems. This form of hosting provides the sandbox environment of a dedicated system at what is often at a more affordable price. Today, VPS systems even can be found starting at $10/month, dealing a major blow to most shared plans. VPS systems are similar to cloud hosting in that aside from having your own block of server resources, often clients have the option of adding additional RAM and Bandwidth as needed, allowing for flexible scaling.

A key separator between VPS and cloud hosting, however, is that a VPS is essentially a slice of a full physical server, whereas cloud hosts typically spread sites across linked servers. But the ability to scale resources on demand is a key link between cloud and VPS systems. The virtual in VPS systems comes from the breed of software which is used to create the sandboxed slices on the server.

It might surprise you that the cloud is little more than a marketing term coined by the information technology industry in recent years. The lack of an official standard or conscientious has allowed the term to be used in virtually any technology-related conversation. When it comes to picking a company for hosting, be weary of companies claiming that cloud hosting is a cure for all hosting problems. During an interview with Duke Skarda, Chief Technology Officier at Softlayer – one of the largest hosting companies in the industry – Skarda confirmed that the term “cloud “ is nothing more than a marketing term and that since it is not standardized, the meaning varies from company to company. The key aspect of anything cloud is the ability to scale resources on demand without the overhead of setting up a brand new server.

In terms of usage scenarios, in my interviews with the hosting experts, the consensus tends to be that cloud hosting is ideal for: development and testing; launching new products or sites where you do not have a solid estimate of the resources required; and even having a failover system so if your existing server(s) get overloaded, traffic can be sent to the cloud systems which can kick in virtually instantly as soon as needed. Matt Willbanks – cloud specialist at Rackspace – another major player in the hosting industry – cited a case where an advertising agency used cloud systems to deploy advertisements on a test basis to gauge the effectiveness of them. By using cloud systems, the company was able to setup server resources for each ad virtually and instantly, without having to worry about server configuration and setup during the trials.

As many cloud hosting plans have no setup fee, no contracts, and offer billing by month/week/day/minute, they have become one of the best ways for companies to get quality hosting while only paying for the resources they need. Still, both Skarda and Willbanks mentioned that many of their business clients (ranging from small to enterprise level) embrace hybrid hosting combinations where predictable traffic is handled by traditional servers while cloud systems handle overflow traffic.

While paying by the minute/week/day might sound daunting, Rackspace and Softlayer both have teams to provide assistance to clients so that no matter the scale, the client always has a good idea of what resources might be required for their projects.


About Charles Costa

Charles Costa is a content marketing professional based out of Silicon Valley. Feel free to learn more at