Despite the fact that the cloud has been around for a few years now, and everyone from the CEO of major corporation down to your fourth grade niece has a cloud account in which to store their files, there’s still a great deal of confusion regarding the difference between the cloud (or cloud computing) and a data center. To many people, the two things are the same.
To IT managers who have to try to convince their CEO’s to move to a data center to improve security and disaster recovery efforts, being met with a response like “Why don’t we just move everything to the cloud?” is frustrating at best. However, it’s common because to the casual observer, the cloud and the data center appear to have very similar functions: Offsite storage of data. However, the similarities end there, and in fact, the simple fact that both manage data is a similarity in only the broadest sense.
Still, because you’re probably going to have to explain the difference to someone who does not have a great deal of understanding of the differences between the cloud and data centers — or perhaps you are unclear yourself and need to make a decision for your business — we’ve come up with an easy explanation of the differences.
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The Data Center Defined
A data center is a specific place — an actual building — that houses servers as well as other components, such as telecommunications equipment. It’s secure, climate controlled, and usually maintains redundant power and communication services in order to ensure that it stays operational during emergencies or failures.
Data centers are either private, as in the building houses the servers for a single company or is a colocation facility, in which multiple businesses rent space in the center and enjoy the cost savings that come from sharing resources like power. Companies that use data centers build the infrastructure from the ground up, creating hardware configurations for their own specific needs.
Access to the data center is tightly controlled, and depending on the agreement with the center owners, tenants may contract for managed services, in which the data center handles maintenance and security tasks, or handle management themselves.
The Cloud Defined
To the layperson, the concept of the cloud is somewhat amorphous — many people imagine a literal cloud, hovering above the Earth and containing all of the data we create every day. While our files and photos aren’t literally floating in space, the actual location of the cloud is somewhat open to interpretation.
Essentially, the cloud is a collection of resources, including applications and storage, which are not tied to any specific location. Clouds cannot exist without data centers, but they are not data centers themselves — they are a product of a data center.
For example, a user who wishes to store their files in the cloud would access a storage application via the internet, and send the file to that application, which is stored on a server. The exact location of that server is (usually) unknown to the user, who is most likely unconcerned with that detail as long as his or her file is safe and easily accessible.
Comparing the Data Center and the Cloud
So going back to your CEO, who suggests abandoning the data center in favor of the cloud, it’s easy to see how one could assume that the two entities are the same thing, since they are so closely tied together. And given that the cloud is often a less expensive option for data storage and management, it’s very appealing to many small businesses.
If you do not have a network that requires strict security protocols, and you can conduct business using the wide array of existing applications, the cloud might make financial sense, especially when you consider that moving into a data center requires you to build the infrastructure from the ground up as well as invest in maintenance and administration.
However, when you take cost out of the equation, the data center has some distinct advantages, especially when it comes to security. Because the cloud is accessed via the internet, and anyone with the right credentials (legitimate or not) can access cloud data, there is some risk of data breach or loss in the cloud environment. In some cases, you may be prohibited from using cloud services due to your industry, in which case, a private data center with strict access controls and complete control over security.
Neither the cloud nor the data center is a “one size fits all” solution, and the right choice depends on your business’ specific needs. However, the most important point to remember is that the cloud and data centers are different — no matter what your CEO might think.