Cloud-based vs. Web-based Applications: What You Need to Know


By: John Tomblin, Senior Solutions Architect DataTitan

Until the start of the current millennium, the concept of “cloud-based” web applications was foreign. Why? Because most application development before that time relied on server-side solutions not involving the Internet, but people often conflate the two terms. It’s sort of like crocodiles and alligators, or butter and margarine. You might call margarine butter, but it’s not, and the same is true of “cloud-based” vs “web-based” applications.

People often intertwine the two terms together, and if you are not involved with software and web development day in and day out, it’s easy to understand why there’s confusion between the terms. Although both run on the Internet and have similar development DNA, there is a significant difference between them. Web applications need a browser to run on, whereas cloud-based applications do not. All surgeons can be doctors, but not all doctors are surgeons. Similarly, all cloud applications are web-based, but not all web applications are cloud-based.

So, what are the actual differences and why does anyone care?

Web-based Applications

Put simply, web-based applications, require a web browser like Google Chrome, Microsoft Bing, or Mozilla s Firefox. One of these browser platforms, or similar, are required to be on a person’s computer or device before they can operate. As an example, most everyone banks online, but for you to access your “online” banking information, you must have both a web browser and an active Internet connection.

Web applications rely on a combination of server-side scripts (ASP and PHP to name a few) to manage the storage and retrieval of data, and client-side scripts (HTML and JavaScript) to deliver data to users through browser sessions. This allows users to interact with web applications and use online forms, CMS, e-commerce carts, and more. Moreover, web applications allow users to share information, collaborate on projects, create documents, and work on common projects regardless of device or location. This is especially true for many small businesses who have remote sales or service teams, while simultaneously operating a business hub where administrators and managers are “pushing” work to the field.

For example, a banking website can be accessed via a browser, which then interacts with the bank’s server, which in turn receives and processes information, then returning those results to the user s web browser. The bank’s server is where the data “works and lives”, but parts of this data can be shared across multiple screens anywhere where the web application can be accessed.

But don’t confuse a web application with a website.

A website only contains information such as text, videos, or images whereas a web application can interact with a database. I often tell people that websites are for [viewing] while web applications are for [doing]. A website can only show you a picture of a calculator whereas a web application can provide you with a working calculator you can use from a web browser. Other examples of web applications include social networking sites such as Facebook, video streaming services such as Netflix, and photo editing tools such as Adobe Lightroom.

What are Cloud-Based Applications?

Cloud-based applications, as the name implies, are applications that operate over the “Cloud’’, which is just a fancy way of saying “Internet”. If you look up “Internet” in the dictionary, you’ll often see it also referred to as “the cloud”. Twenty years ago, we used to say to our customers “We are going to build an Internet application for your business”. Today we say “We are going to build a cloud application”. It sounds more techie, but it’s still an application system. Cloud computing refers to the computing architecture that involves storing and accessing data and software over the Internet. If you are using data and programs over the Internet, it is cloud computing. You can access cloud computing or cloud applications anywhere and at any time with an active Internet connection.

Cloud applications are not hosted locally and are backed by an advanced set of systems that ensures uptime, security, and integration with other systems. The data of these applications is stored over the cloud (the Internet) and can be accessed offline. You can access cloud applications using your web browser or custom-built applications or custom mobile apps.

Email is the simplest example of a cloud-based application. You can send, store and access your data online using any email application like Outlook and Gmail, but email services are also accessible offline. You can create content, save it, send it, and when Internet connectivity is again available, your emails will automatically be distributed. Other examples of cloud-based applications include DropBox, Salesforce, Evernote, and, to name a few.

Key Takeaways:

  • All cloud applications are web applications, but not all web applications are cloud applications
  • Web applications only work when connected to the Internet while cloud-based applications are available offline.
  • Cloud-based applications and web-based applications have similar software architectural structures, but not 100%.
  • Web applications can be accessed through a web browser such as Google Chrome, Firefox, or Safari while Cloud applications can be accessed from both web browsers and smartphone applications.
  • Popular examples of cloud-based applications are Dropbox, Slack, and Google Cloud. Amazon, eBay, banking websites, and Facebook are some of the popular examples of web-based applications.

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