The Cloud Explained So Simply, Even Your Grandma Will Understand

The advantages of software as a service (or SaaS) can be hard to wrap your head around if you don't have a firm idea of what the cloud is — and getting one can be tricky, even for people who rely on the technology daily. Bland, overly technical descriptions ("a network of computers and associated servers centralized via data connection") do little to help matters, making the cloud arguably the most widely used, least understood technology people engage with today.

That said, the benefits of SaaS don't have to be so difficult to grasp. The technology is, at a high level, a new take on the same tools businesses and individual users have embraced for decades — just applied in newer, more functional ways.

What Is the Cloud?

For readers mature enough to remember the earlier days of home/business computing, before data/internet connections were widespread or even common, the act of installing a word processor such as Word highlights a lot of the benefits that the cloud (and software as a service, by proxy) brings to the table. In those days, installing or updating your copy of Word required most or all of the following: going to the computer shop to buy a disk; returning home and inserting the disk(s) into one or more computers; and running the installation, complete with punching in the serial numbers printed in the manual. From there, any files you saved went directly onto your computer's memory or, in some high-tech cases, a central database.

Today, things are a little easier. You go to the Office 365 website and enter a credit card number. An auto installer runs, and there you are: Word (and other Office-related products, if you so choose) is there on your computer, with files automatically syncing to internet-based file boxes or work repositories.

That's a big difference, and it outlines most of the critical functions the cloud carries out in a modern working environment. Most of the time you interact with the cloud via the web on your computer or through an app on your smartphone or tablet. Behind the scenes, using its own servers and infrastructure, the cloud provider takes care of the time-consuming technical work of updating your software, ensuring it's running smoothly, and regularly improving it. The cloud provider also stores your data and account information for you, making it possible for you to log in and access it from anywhere.

This is one reason a lot of cloud-based consumer services — think Hulu or Office365 — charge subscription fees. It's also why you may have seen acronyms such as SaaS in articles like this. The cloud-based model has fundamentally changed how companies deliver services to their customers, and with a few exceptions, the cloud is almost limitless in terms of the functions it can enable. And the market's growing: According to IDC, worldwide spending on public cloud services will almost double by 2023, an increase to the tune of hundreds of 

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The Rise of SaaS

Indeed, the limitless nature of software as a service really starts to show through when considering what it can do to kickstart a business's communications. Returning again to decades past, consider what a pain even "simple" conference calls or videoconferencing could be. Closets stuffed with PBX phone equipment, technical issues leaping a span of five or more providers, each of them passing off blame to the next: "The video equipment guy says it's the networking guy, but the networking guy says the rep for the terminals should know what's happening."

Today, things go a lot more smoothly, with single providers doling out the benefits of SaaS and end users enjoying a seamless, one-stop experience. Dialing into a voice-only videoconference is as easy as starting an impromptu video chat or open collaboration session, with users contributing from whatever platform they have handy at the time: their desktop computers, smartphones, laptops, or tablets.

These services and processes may come powered by multiple technologies, but SaaS platforms nonetheless tend to come with single points of contact for help with whatever problems the business may encounter:

  • Errors and outages are easily attributable to the network provider or the SaaS service provider (often one and the same).
  • Changes to features or operational size (number of lines, for instance) are often a self-service affair, with credentialed decision-makers making changes as needed through a cloud-hosted customer portal, accessible via the website.
  • Billing is likewise trimmed down to two or three providers at most, with businesses often choosing to purchase network services and associated needs from the same people providing their SaaS communication platform.

More to the point, cloud services often integrate to provide additional value to the customer. Unified communications systems integrate with cloud productivity software like G Suite, for example, which allows employees to place calls directly via Gmail contacts, either over the web or on the go using their smartphones. While pre-cloud software didn't easily talk to other types, today's cloud services are intentionally designed with integration in mind.

Ultimately, the benefits of SaaS are as variable and useful to organizations as applications of larger cloud technology. A lot of organizations have already made the switch — if yours is still bogged down by old technology or chaotic infrastructure, it may be time for you, too.

Rose de Fremery
Rose de Fremery Contributor

Rose de Fremery is a New York-based writer and technologist. She is the former Managing Editor of The Social Media Monthly, the world’s first and only print magazine devoted to the social media revolution. Rose currently blogs about business IT topics including VoIP, UC, CRM, business innovation, and telework for Ziff-Davis as well as HP’s Tektonika program, HP Innovation Journal, HP Channel, Intel, and Vonage’s content marketing program.

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