Years ago, when I was making do with the limited computer equipment that I could afford, I never dreamed that I would one day be able to login to a website, plug in a few specs about the machine I wanted and then, a few minutes later, log into that machine remotely and run whatever programs I needed to. Yet, that’s exactly what today’s cloud computing resources enable me to do.
For a recent book project, I needed access to a Mac running the latest version of the OS X operating system. Not wanting to run out and throw down a thousand dollars or so on an actual machine, I started searching for some online alternatives. It turns out there are at least a couple of cloud services offering custom virtual Mac environments for a monthly fee. Through HostMyApple.com, I was able to have the use of a Mac with El Capitan pre-installed for the couple of months I needed it and it only cost me $34.99 a month.
For my latest project, I need to work with Microsoft Access 2016 which is now only available as part of a Microsoft Office installation. Not wanting to purchase Office or dedicate a machine to it, I decided to setup a cloud server on Microsoft Azure where I could get the virtual hardware I needed for just under $0.08 / hour. Within a few minutes, I was logged into my new Windows Server 2012 installation and about a half-hour after that, I had Office 365 installed. The Office installation costs me $6.99 a month (it’s also available yearly for $69.99) and the computing time can be managed by shutting down the server when I’m not using it. If I keep it down to a couple hundred hours of work time, it would run me less than $16 / month. That’s a huge savings over the alternative.
In addition to the OS, storage and RAM, the virtual server includes a 10 Mbps connection so downloading Office 365 went a bit faster than it would have on my local machine. Just for fun, I decided to install Microsoft’s free Visual Studio Community 2015 along with it in case I want to do some integration between .NET programming and Access.
Of course, there’s a lot more to cloud services than virtual machines. Cloud databases including SQL Server and MySQL offer scalable data storage that can be accessed remotely and eliminate the need for managing servers in-house. File storage solutions are available for less than $0.10 / Gigabyte per month. You can check out Google and Amazon for more types of services than I would know how to talk about here.
Still, if all that was available in the cloud were virtual servers and database solutions, I’d still be incredibly excited at the resources available to someone who’s willing to embrace a little bit of a learning curve. Cloud services actually reverse the mindset from deciding how much local hardware you can afford and stretching its abilities to being able to immediately access resources many times as powerful as your own local computer for a very small fraction of the price that you would normally pay. There’s no longer any need to commit to a specific operating system or even hardware platform. You no longer have to worry as much about how quickly your hardware will become obsolete when there’s virtual hardware that you can lease and update as needed. For businesses and even individuals, computer resources go from being a large capital expense to a flexible utility that can be budgeted and adjusted monthly. That’s the kind of change that opens up opportunities for everyone.