When the term “cloud computing” comes to mind, it’s fair to say that most people think of it as some nebulous group of computers in the sky delivering content to mobile devices and workstations whenever it’s required. How far off is that definition, and where exactly is “the cloud”?

In a dusty corner of San Antonio, Texas, the cloud is about to come to life. As a Microsoft corporate VP takes a shovel and firmly plants it into the soil, she proclaims; “The cloud is not the cloud in the sky, it’s what we are about to break ground on (right here).”* That’s because San Antonio, Prineville (OR), Quincy (Wash), among many other cities across the globe, are now host to massive data centers filled with tens of thousands of blinking computers owned by Microsoft, Rackspace, Facebook, Amazon and others.

Imagine this: racks upon racks of Intel based servers. Multi-colored wires networked from computer to computer. Huge vaults of pipes for cooling and air-conditioning massive computer farms. A few sleepy network engineers scurrying from machine to machine checking connections. Is this the cloud?

Thomas M. Koulopoulos, author of “Cloud Surfing” says that’s part of the story. “(The cloud is) is a heavily monitored, fortified, and secure array of computers that are built with the objective of securing data with multiple layers of physical and cyber security,” he says. But those asking ‘where’s the cloud’ aren’t asking the right question Koulopoulos argues. “This is sort of like asking, where does electricity exist?”

That’s because cloud computing is much more than the device in your hand streaming music, the corporate dashboard on your wirelessly connected tablet, or even megawatt powered data centers.

Instead, think of cloud as a service of computational power, storage and more, much like the service you’d get from a utility company. The cloud allows you to plug into a required capability—whether it’s for print servers or analytics.

The cloud is typically available on a metered basis when demanded, and can be accessed via self-service methods—simply plug in via a portal and access what you need. And it’s delivered via a host of technologies, software, processes, devices and physical locations that power this “service”.

Thomas M. Koulopoulos asserts that where the cloud physically exists doesn’t matter; “What counts instead is the question, ‘is it there when I need it?’” he says.  For people like me, this is too much of a utilitarian approach.  I want to know “the where” of cloud computing.

Coming back to the original question then, the cloud exists—in your connected handheld device, on your laptop, in your data center, in another company’s data center, across millions of miles of fiber optic cables, and wirelessly in the air. The cloud then, really isn’t just a place, it’s more of a system, a massive investment in people, dollars, infrastructure, time and talent.

So where is the cloud? The answer is places seen and unseen. In short – everywhere.

 

*as told in “The Shadow Factory” by James Bamford.