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What is Infrastructure as a Service?

June 01, 2022
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Every month it seems like a new tech phrase pops up all over the place signaling the arrival of a growing trend in computing to be explored by the leaders of startups and mega tech companies alike. You’ve likely heard of software as a service (SaaS), but how about infrastructure as a service? Infrastructure as a service, or, IaaS, is a cloud-based service that’s made of highly scalable and automated computing resources. IaaS allows businesses to purchase resources like storage and networking as-needed instead of having to invest in hardware, like servers, for itself.

IaaS in Cloud Computing

First off, it’s important to understand the phrasing “as a service.” This refers to the way in which information technology (IT) departments utilize the offerings, as services, rather than the organization investing in the purchasing and staffing of all of these resources itself.

IaaS sometimes is also known as cloud infrastructure services. Cloud computing is essentially the virtualization of different services. In our previous blog on cloud computing, we explained that, “the cloud is a vast network of remote servers around the world that are hooked together and meant to operate as a single ecosystem.”

Infrastructure as a service, operating via cloud, brings servers, network, operating systems and storage to clients in a virtual platform, typically some type of dashboard or application programming interface (API).1

There are several advantages of IaaS in cloud computing, which is partially how it’s become so popular:1

  • Easy to automate
  • Scalable, meaning resources can be purchased based on use or need
  • Clients retain complete control over the remote infrastructure

The scalability aspect is really the key feature of IaaS in cloud computing. It’s a huge advantage for growing companies to not have to guess at their needs and pay upfront for hardware that they might not use all of– or to be caught in a bind if they grow quickly and aren’t able to purchase and install new hardware on the turn of a dime. It also means that large companies can get access to all the hardware they need but retain complete control of their systems.1

Examples of IaaS

Cisco Metacloud, Microsoft Azure and Google Compute Engine (GCE) are all big-name infrastructure as a service platforms. Many of these have data centers across the globe to keep services available with low-latency and are connected via a non-public network to keep data secure. Probably the most well-known example of IaaS in cloud computing is Amazon Web Services (AWS).

AWS offers storage and backup, website hosting, ecommerce and SaaS applications and more. According to Amazon, there are more than one million active users of AWS and that includes huge companies across industries like Netflix, Adobe, Johnson & Johnson, Capital One, Airbnb and AOL.2 While you’ll rarely know you’re interacting with this (or any) cloud-based infrastructure, you might see “aws” in the URL of an image or pdf you open from a website signaling it’s stored on the AWS storage cloud.

IaaS vs SaaS vs PaaS

These three offerings (sometimes referred to as ‘cloud service models’) are not mutually exclusive and are very often used in concert so many of the benefits and risks are the same.

So what’s the difference between all of these cloud “services”? As it might be clear, the differences mostly lie with the first letter of each acronym. You’re either buying a cloud-hosted software, infrastructure or platform. Let’s break it down further:

Software as a service (SaaS)

Software as a service (SaaS), probably the best known of the three and the most often utilized, uses the internet to deliver third-party software applications to a customer via a browser, without any downloads or installation.1 You likely use SaaS applications all the time. Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Presentations are all a part of the SaaS known as Google Workspace. Dropbox provides a storage and collaboration service remotely for millions of users, Salesforce is an extremely popular suite of software tools for customer relationship management, Wordpress and Squarespace are both software as a service applications for building and managing websites.

Software as a service is appealing to businesses for several reasons. First, many SaaS offerings include free trials, monthly or annual fees and even third-party support teams, so there’s minimal risk associated with investing. Similar to IaaS, it’s also easy to scale a contract up or down based on the number of users or special features. However, SaaS also has its limitations. If an organization ends up using a number of different SaaS (or IaaS and PaaS) resources, it might face challenges when attempting to use the different platforms together, in other words, the systems could have low interoperability. Additionally, although trial periods and initial contracts might provide deals, it can be hard to get out of contracts without facing loss of money, data, or other resources. Finally, by using any SaaS, a company is putting trust into a third-party to maintain appropriate security of its data as it's transferred and used in the software.

Platform as a service (PaaS)

Platform as a service offerings are sort of a combined model of SaaS and IaaS. PaaS models are most helpful for businesses creating customized applications and can host, manage and maintain databases, frameworks, operating systems, backups and more. They provide a place for development operations teams to collaborate on coding, testing, deployment and more.3

Similar to the benefits of the other service offerings, PaaS is so helpful because of its scalability. DevOps teams often find PaaS to make it much quicker and easier to to go through the stages of development, testing and production. A shared development environment makes it easier to collaborate and access tools from anywhere. PaaS also offloads infrastructure management so organizations can focus on their development work rather than patches and administrative work for maintaining it.3

PaaS models are probably the most unfamiliar to individuals outside of computing and information technology. It can be used in internet of things (IoT) development and be used for real-time data processing for IoT devices.3 Brand names of PaaS include AWS Elastic Beanstalk, Google App Engine, Heroku and OpenShift.

Become an IT expert on the world of cloud service models

If you’re intrigued by the push toward servitization in tech, you can make it a part of your computing career. Marquette’s online M.S. in Computer and Information Science contains a curriculum full of courses that can help you prepare to work in or use IaaS. Take courses in software development, artificial intelligence, internet of things, networks and internets, database systems, real-time and embedded systems and others. Talk to an Admissions Advisor to find out more about your specialization and career path options with our online computer and information science master’s.