Cloud computing has revolutionized the way organizations access and use computing resources and applications. According to Gartner, the global public cloud services market is forecast to reach $397.5 billion by 2022 as more businesses migrate to the cloud. But what exactly is cloud computing and what makes it so advantageous for enterprises today? This article will provide an introduction to cloud computing and outline its key characteristics.

What is Cloud Computing?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as “a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Simply put, cloud computing refers to the delivery of computing services including servers, storage, databases, networking, software, analytics and more over the internet, also known as the cloud. Enterprises can leverage the cloud to access IT resources and applications on demand, similar to how they access utility services like electricity.

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Key Characteristics of Cloud Computing

According to NIST, there are five essential characteristics that define cloud computing:

On-Demand Self-Service

Cloud users can provision computing capabilities like server time, network storage, applications etc. automatically as needed without requiring human interaction with the service provider. Resources can be provisioned via a web-based self-service portal that serves as an interface to the cloud environment. This enables users to scale up or down their resource usage based on demand.

Broad Network Access

Cloud capabilities are available over the network and can be accessed via standard mechanisms by heterogeneous platforms like mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc. Services can be accessed over high bandwidth networks like the internet or private LANs. Cloud providers ensure high quality of service by monitoring metrics like latency, throughput etc.

Resource Pooling

Computing resources are pooled by the provider to serve multiple users through a multi-tenant model. Physical and virtual resources are dynamically assigned and reassigned based on user demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources. Resources appear unlimited and can be provisioned as required. This provides economies of scale and efficiency for the provider.

Rapid Elasticity

Capabilities can be elastically provisioned and released to scale rapidly based on demand. This supports the ability to scale up or down resources like storage, computing power etc. automatically. Rapid elasticity helps organizations easily adapt to workload changes and unexpected spikes in demand.

Measured Service

Cloud computing employs a usage-based or pay-per-use billing model. Resource usage is monitored, measured and reported transparently for billing as per usage metrics like storage consumed, bandwidth utilized, active user accounts etc. Users only pay for what they use leading to a cost-effective model.

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Additional Benefits and Considerations of Cloud Computing

In addition to the essential characteristics, some of the key benefits enterprise users gain from cloud computing include:

  • Increased flexibility – Users can access services from anywhere with an internet connection and on any device like mobile, tablet, laptop etc. This enables flexibility to use services from any location.
  • Cost savings – The utility-style pay-as-you-go pricing model saves organizations the capital typically required for data centers and computing infrastructure. It converts fixed costs into variable costs.
  • Scalability – Services can scale on demand to provide higher capacity during usage spikes. This removes the need to provision for peak usage which may occur infrequently.
  • Business continuity – Storing data and applications in the cloud makes them more resilient and accessible. Cloud providers use redundant servers and backup mechanisms for better disaster recovery.
  • Higher security – Cloud providers invest heavily in security and can provide higher levels of security than most organizations implement internally. However, it is important to evaluate security provisions carefully when moving to the cloud.

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While cloud computing offers immense advantages, some key considerations include:

  • Dependency on internet connectivity for availability of services
  • Limited customization compared to on-premise applications
  • Potential lock-in to vendor services
  • Ensuring provider has adequate security and compliance provisions

Cloud Computing Models

There are three main cloud computing models that provide different levels of control, flexibility and management of resources:

Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS)

IaaS provides basic building blocks of computing like networking, storage, servers and data centers over the internet. Users can deploy software, applications, and services on the infrastructure provided by the IaaS vendor. Some examples include Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google Compute Engine.

Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS)

PaaS provides a platform with preconfigured software and tools to facilitate application development, testing, deployment and hosting. This saves developers from configuring the underlying infrastructure. Examples include AWS Elastic Beanstalk, Windows Azure, Heroku.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)

SaaS provides access to complete end-user applications over the internet which are managed by the service provider. Users simply access the application through clients like web browsers. The infrastructure and platforms needed to run the application are not managed or controlled by users. Salesforce CRM, Zoom, Slack, Dropbox are examples of SaaS.

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Public, Private and Hybrid Clouds

There are also different cloud deployment models:

  • Public Cloud – Public clouds are owned and operated by third-party cloud service providers and are accessible to any customer with an internet connection and willing to pay for the services used. Public clouds offer maximum efficiency and scalability.
  • Private Cloud – A private cloud is dedicated infrastructure established for a specific organization’s internal use. It is managed internally behind the organization’s firewall. Private clouds offer the most control and security.
  • Hybrid Cloud – Hybrid clouds combine public and private clouds. Sensitive applications and data are hosted on a private cloud while less critical workloads are hosted on a public cloud. This allows organizations to maximize the benefits of both models.


Cloud computing delivers significant agility, efficiency and cost benefits that are driving enterprise adoption globally. The key characteristics of cloud computing as defined by NIST – on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured service – enable this value. Organizations need to factor in the pros and cons of cloud models for their specific use cases as they develop their cloud strategy. The continuous evolution of cloud computing will undoubtedly lead to more innovative services that can empower businesses with greater capabilities while requiring fewer resources to scale and sustain their computing needs.

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