What Is Cloud Computing? 15 FAQ for Beginners

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Start with the basics and work your way up to advanced cloud computing concepts with this FAQ-style guide.

[Featured Image] A person in a red sweater and glasses sits at a desk and works with data on both their phone and their laptop using cloud computing services.

What is cloud computing? (with example)

Cloud computing is the delivery of computer resources like data storage via the internet. One of the most common examples of cloud computing is Apple's iCloud. If you have an iPhone, you've likely backed up its contents to iCloud. In other words, you've connected your device to the internet to store and manage data across your Apple devices.

There are many types of cloud computing beyond this personal use case. The following article answers 15 frequently asked questions that can help you build a deeper understanding of each one. 

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Cloud computing concepts

The following section outlines a few components you could consider the building blocks of cloud technology. You can think of these terms as the foundation on which you'll build your cloud computing expertise. 

What are computing resources?

The goal of cloud computing is to provide internet-based access to technology traditionally only accessible through physical servers. In the context of cloud technology, compute resources can be used to describe anything from databases to processing power to software applications. 

What is IT infrastructure?

Information technology (IT) infrastructure is what makes it possible for an organization to build and run the technologies that they rely on. It is a set of hardware, software, networks, and processes that support business requirements. The two primary types are traditional and cloud infrastructure. Traditional or on-premises infrastructure is made up of physical devices like servers and data centers. Cloud infrastructure enables users to access those resources via the internet (through a process called virtualization).

Read more: What is ITIL? A Beginner’s Guide to the ITIL Process

What is virtualization?

Virtualization refers to the creation of a virtual version of something. Through the use of specialized software, virtualization enables us to mimic hardware functionalities. One way to conceptualize virtualization is to think of it as software that's pretending to be hardware.   

Types of cloud computing

A notable benefit of cloud computing is customizability. Cloud infrastructure can be designed to support a business, individual, or organization's specific needs. You can learn about a few of the most common types of clouds in the following sections.  

What are public clouds?

Public clouds are offered to users through a third-party, such as Microsoft Azure or IBM Cloud. Public cloud services are not owned or run by their users. However, this doesn't mean that anyone can access them. Public cloud environments can be separated and distributed to multiple entities. iCloud is also a public cloud service.

What are private clouds?

Private cloud services are dedicated to an individual or a group of individuals. The environment operates behind that person or group's firewall, providing isolated access. You can build a private cloud on a third-party cloud provider's data center or on-premises. 

What are hybrid clouds?

Hybrid cloud computing is tricky to define because it varies from IT system to IT system. If applications can move through separate environments through connectivity or integration, the cloud environment can be considered hybrid. However, it must be managed as a single environment. Examples of a hybrid cloud system include one private cloud and one public cloud, two or more private clouds, or two or more public clouds. It can also include virtual environments that are connected to public or private clouds. 

Cloud computing software

Now that you know the fundamentals of cloud technology, you might be wondering how it all works. This next section elaborates on some of the core concepts we discussed previously.

What is a hypervisor in cloud computing?

A hypervisor is a thin layer of software that separates a system's operating system (OS) and resources from the physical machine. Hypervisors are sometimes referred to as virtual machine monitors (VMM) because they organize these separated resources into files called virtual machines.

Read more: What is a Hypervisor? Types, Use Cases, and Career Opportunities

What is a virtual machine in cloud computing?

A virtual machine is a file that replicates the computing environment of a physical machine. By imitating these environments, virtual machines enable us to perform computer system functions with software instead of hardware.

Read more: Introduction to Virtualization: What is a Virtual Machine?

What is a container?

Containers are similar in purpose to virtual machines. However, virtual machines virtualize more components of a physical device, including a version of its operating system (OS). Instead of creating a new, virtual version of the hardware's OS, containers share the same one. This frees up space and computational power for a smaller, faster, and more portable system.

Cloud computing services

Above, we covered some of the core concepts behind cloud technology. Next, we’ll answer some FAQs regarding cloud services and cloud service providers. 

What is SaaS in cloud computing?

SaaS stands for software as a service, and it refers to a cloud-based software delivery model. It's a cloud service that enables users to access on-demand software applications via the internet rather than having to install them. Examples of these cloud applications include DropBox and Google Workspace.

What is IaaS in cloud computing?

IaaS stands for infrastructure as a service, and it refers to cloud-based services that allow you to rent IT infrastructure components. Cloud vendors provide things like networks and cloud servers on a pay-as-you-go basis so that organizations don't need to purchase and maintain cloud infrastructure independently. It's similar to the way you might rent your router from your WiFi service provider instead of purchasing your own. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is an example of an IaaS cloud provider. 

Read more: What's the Difference Between AWS vs. Azure vs. Google Cloud?

What is PaaS in cloud computing?

PaaS stands for platform as a service. Similar to IaaS, cloud platforms provide organizations with access to application software and tools. However, PaaS focuses on providing application development tools rather than compute resources. This cost-effective cloud computing model enables businesses to utilize a development, testing, and deployment environment all through the internet. 

Read more: Intro to Cloud Computing: IaaS vs PaaS vs SaaS

What is FaaS (or serverless) cloud computing?

FaaS stands for function as a service. This serverless, back-end cloud computing model enables users to develop and deploy event-driven code. In other words, developers can write code to be executed in response to certain events without manual intervention. 

Benefits of cloud computing

This next section defines commonly used buzzwords surrounding the benefits of cloud computing technology. 

What is scalability in cloud computing?

Scalability is a measurement of a system's ability to increase or decrease IT resources as needed. It’s often regarded as one of the most significant benefits of cloud computing. Especially in enterprise-level businesses, cloud infrastructure must be able to accommodate fluctuating demands. For example, if a company expands, more employees are likely to be accessing its cloud technology. Despite handling more users, the system should not suffer from performance issues. 

What is elasticity in cloud computing?

In cloud computing, elasticity refers to an IT system's ability to match the resources administered to the resources required. It's often used in pay-as-you-go cloud services such as IaaS models because it helps ensure the customer only pays for the resources that are actually required at a given time. Although it's very similar to scalability, scalability focuses more on removing or adding resources based on demands. Elasticity can be part of a scalability plan. 

Learn more about cloud computing with Coursera

Keep expanding your cloud computing expertise with IBM’s self-paced, online course Introduction to Cloud Computing. In addition to learning more about cloud computing trends, technologies, and applications, you’ll complete a hands-on project with IBM Cloud and earn a shareable certificate upon completion. 

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