While the buzz about the cloud is certainly nothing new here in 2019, it’s amazing how quickly the industry has multiplied the solution space. And, as often happens when technology grows faster than our language, terms get used and misused in different ways, leading to confusion.
A good example is the use of the umbrella term “data center,” which is usually contrasted with the use of a cloud solution…but then why do cloud companies keep talking about their data centers? And how do private clouds and hybrid clouds enter the mix?
It’s worthwhile, then, to pause for a moment and get back to basics, looking at the ways in which cloud computing and data centers are related.
What is the Difference Between a Data Center and The Cloud?
A data center is any facility that houses servers and/or data storage facilities for an organization. This includes the hardware itself, the space in which it is housed, the power systems and backup systems, environmental controls, and anything else needed to keep those servers running. A data center can be a single server or complex with hundreds of servers on racks.
Using this definition, companies (like Amazon or Microsoft) that offer public cloud computing services have data centers that they then make available to other organizations. So why do people often contrast data centers with the cloud?
While cloud companies have their own data centers, organizations often have their own data centers as well, which are referred to as on-premises or on-prem for short. When most people talk about their data centers, the implication is that they are talking about on-prem data centers.
So, on-prem data centers are owned and managed by the organization in question, for their own internal uses. With the cloud, data are stored and applications run off-premises, and accessed remotely through the internet.
With a cloud data center, the actual hardware is managed and run by the cloud company in question, often with the help of a third-party managed services provider (such as Connectria). Clients then run their applications and manage their data within a virtual infrastructure that runs on the cloud servers.
Some cloud providers even offer smaller, customized clouds to clients, giving them singular access to their own cloud environment. These are called private clouds, to contrast with the public clouds offered by the major cloud players (Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google, etc.). Organizations that want to maintain more control over their environments, but still want the benefits of a cloud solution, often turn to private clouds.
Using the cloud has many benefits over using on-prem data centers. For example, on-prem data centers require a substantial capital investment in hardware. With the cloud, an organization pays only for the portion of hardware that they use. On-prem data centers also incur added costs for power, environmental controls (HVAC), regular upgrades and tests, security, etc. With a cloud provider, these costs are built into the monthly subscription fee structure.
“Hybrid Clouds”: Using Both The Cloud and On-Prem Data Centers
Hybrid cloud is a term used for a mixed environment that uses a combination of on-prem data centers, private clouds, or public clouds. For example, a large organization might have their infrastructure and access management on-prem, their HR applications running on a private cloud, and a public cloud environment for their DevOps team to use for their testing and production environments.
In many ways, a hybrid cloud environment combines the best aspects of each solution: The scalability and speed of the cloud, with the familiarity and control of existing on-prem data centers and private cloud solutions.
(We’ll note here that Connectria offers a range of options for customers to purchase hybrid cloud solutions. These include managed hosting services for standardized cloud solutions, as well as custom managed hosting for enterprise class x86 servers from major brands.)
A question that often comes up in discussions of hybrid cloud solutions is how do these different data centers talk to each other? That is, how are on-prem systems integrated with private and public clouds to share information and services?
It’s a great question, the details of which go well beyond this article. In short, an organization creates a “virtualization layer” that can spin up and support virtual machines and containers. A cloud software layer is built on top of this and handles the interaction between the various clouds through application programming interfaces (APIs).
Thus, the answer to the question of “How are cloud computing and data centers related?” is a complex one; but the basic one-line answer is that public clouds, private clouds, and on-prem data centers can talk to each other if an experienced cloud architect has set up the systems and interfaces correctly.
Data Center vs. The Cloud: Which is Best for Your Organization?
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for every organization. The decision to use a public cloud, private cloud, hybrid cloud, or traditional data center depends on the degree of privacy and control needed, as well as the pressure to curb costs and increase transparency.
The following chart summarizes the benefits and drawbacks of each approach:
Traditional Data Center
|Benefits:||Owner has complete control over hardware|
Cost of use is slightly easier to understand
Privacy can be maintained in industries where it is required
|Little in the way of up-front costs|
Resources are scalable with use and need
Pay for what you use
Requires little knowledge or manpower to get started
Easy to access remotely
|Opportunity to try out the cloud without a full commitment (or full migration)|
All benefits of a cloud platform are available for use
Cloud can serve as a backup for on-prem data centers and vice versa
Can operate behind a firewall (good for added security)
Allows more control over some parts of the cloud
|Disadvantages:||High up-front capital cost|
Takes up space, uses power whether used or not
Requires a dedicated team to maintain
Hard to access remotely
Security solely dependent on local team
Updates are not automatic; again rely on local team
|Less control over the actual hardware and operating system|
Services offerings and cost structures can be hard to understand at times
Privacy and access must be monitored closely
|Keeping track of multiple clouds can be tricky; might require 3rd-party dashboard|
|Good for:||Smaller organizations that already have a heavy capital investment in IT|
Organizations that need to be excessively cautious about data privacy
|Most organizations of any size||Larger organizations with existing IT infrastructure, but who also want to start their cloud journey|
On the benefits of private clouds, see our article “Can Your Organization Benefit from a Private Cloud Solution?”
For more on the intricacies of managing cloud environments, see our article “Managing Multiple Clouds- Best Practices for your Growing IT Business”
To see what it takes to migrate a data center to the cloud, read “How Would You Migrate a Data Center to Cloud?”