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Cloud networking vs. cloud computing: What's the difference?

Organizations might sometimes consider cloud computing and cloud networking as interchangeable due to their similarities. But the two strategies have different goals and processes.

Cloud computing and cloud networking are related but distinct ideas.

Cloud computing is concerned about how applications run. Cloud networking covers how connectivity to and among applications is managed and delivered.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing shifts enterprise workload hosting from traditional in-house or colocated data centers to a cloud service provider (CSP)'s data center. The enterprise customer has no access to or direct control of the computing infrastructure underlying the services the workload runs on.

Cloud computing is delivered via different consumption models. There are three basic models for consuming cloud services, and each one provides customers with a different level of visibility into and control of their workloads:

  • IaaS delivers a hypervisor layer on which customers provision VMs. Customers can also monitor their workloads from the OS level up.
  • PaaS delivers access to a middleware environment, such as a database or a Java application server, in which customers can deploy applications. Customers can monitor the behavior of their workloads within the middleware environment but can't see anything beneath or outside that environment.
  • SaaS delivers access to a running application, and customers can only monitor their own user, data and configuration information within that application space. Customers can't see the cloud environment within which that application runs.

Cloud networking

Cloud networking involves shifting network management, control and even data connectivity to an external cloud infrastructure. That is, cloud networking uses cloud services to control network traffic and to connect network resources.

Cloud networking examples include the following:

  • using cloud-based network controllers to manage wireless LANs (WLANs) across a company;
  • using cloud-based network controllers to direct WANs in a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN); and
  • using a CSP's internal WAN to help carry enterprise WAN traffic among locations.

When compared to a traditional network, cloud networking can replace the control plane for most parts of a network architecture without hurting network performance.

Cloud compute and cloud networking: Separate but related

There's a natural overlap between cloud computing and cloud networking: Anyone using a cloud platform via IaaS uses cloud networking to connect VMs in that environment to each other, other cloud services and the larger internet. And in a hybrid cloud, enterprises use cloud networking to interconnect cloud resources with internal systems in data centers.

Beyond that, in a modern hybrid network it's typical to shift into the cloud some functions that would be delivered by network appliances in a legacy network. A company may run a global load balancer on a virtual appliance in an IaaS environment, for example, consume a WLAN management platform or secure web gateway as a service SaaS-style.

Ubiquitous?

Nearly all organizations use cloud computing, since 99% of them use SaaS. A smaller number use cloud networking, but several trends are increasing that percentage rapidly, including the following:

  • the ongoing spread of IaaS use, now well past 50% of organizations;
  • the rapid rise of zero-trust network access services to replace traditional VPNs;
  • the spread of security service edge and Secure Access Service Edge; and
  • the continuing spread of cloud-managed WLANs.

Next Steps

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This was last published in November 2022

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