Cloud Computing: The Ever Expanding Buzzword

Tuesday Dec 16th 2008 by James Maguire
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The term ‘cloud computing’ now refers to something both internal and external – or any combination thereof. At this rate, soon every form of computing will be some manner of ‘cloud.’

In the old days, say 2006, the term cloud computing referred to essentially one thing. To use the cloud, you accessed software over the Internet – “over the cloud.” The applications were always located in a remote location, sort of like Dick Cheney.

A couple years ago I interviewed Tim O’Brien, director of Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Group, about Redmond’s nascent cloud strategy. At the time, the cloud computing train was leaving the station and Microsoft knew it had to get on board. (Its recent Azure initiative being the most tangible result.) Amid the company’s fits and starts, O’Brien was clear in how he used the term: cloud computing meant accessing software outside the firewall.

But that straightforward definition has been lost to the sands of time, or at least the sandstorm of vendor excitement. As cloud computing has emerged as a red hot trend, tech vendors of every stripe have painted the term ‘cloud’ on their products, much like food brands all tout that they’re ‘low fat.’

Cloud variations keep expanding. Now we not only have Software as a Service (SaaS), but also Platform as a Service (PaaS), Hardware as a Service (HaaS) and Application as a Service (AaaS). (Actually, there is no AaaS, because even hype-crazed vendors know that it’s one acronym too far.)

Nick Carr, the IT guru and ardent cheerleader for the cloud, has even suggested the term Cloud as a Feature, or CaaF. A CaaF application combines elements that are installed on your hard drive with elements accessed over the Web. For instance, he posits that Google Earth is “kind of CaaFy.” If the term CaaF catches on, some day a poor tech blogger will write a post titled “Is your Software CaaFeinated?” That’s a day we must dread.

But of all the oddness in the gold rush of cloudspeak, the most disconcerting is how the term has lost its basic meaning as an external resource. Cloud computing can now be external or internal. That’s right, forward looking companies can now access the cloud without leaving home.

I recently spoke with Ed Walsh, the CEO of Virtual Iron, a scrappy but back-of-the-pack virtualization software firm. He used the phrase ‘build out a cloud’ to mean the same as ‘virtualizing your datacenter.’ Yet virtualization takes place inside the firewall. Virtualization software enables a server to handle multiple operating systems, and allows a roomful of servers to become a single pooled resource instead of discrete hunks of hardware. Plenty of companies are excited about virtualization – it’s a clear money saver – but are leery of cloud computing, with its hornet’s nest of security risks.

So I had to double-check with Ed about his usage: You’re using virtualization and cloud to mean the exact same thing?

“Server virtualization is more of a base technology and depending on who you talk to, they mention it in different ways,” he told me. “People say, ‘Hey, I want to take a set of server resources, pool it together, and have it seamlessly be a resource pool that I put applications on. And that could be an internal cloud. Or it can be an external cloud.”

Hmmm…internal or external? “Cloud becomes this word they use,” he conceded.

I also recently spoke with Ed Sims, a VC and managing partner of Dawntreader Ventures, with $290 million under management. Given that he’s always looking for hot young companies to bankroll, he’s been eyeing some cloud start-ups. “I was talking to one company that allows you to run your own cloud, in your own datacenter, and make it look like it’s an instance of Amazon EC2 or Google AppEngine,” he told me. “It’s a very nascent, early play.”

That makes sense, yet again, his use of the term was shape-shifting the cloud concept. “It’s all within, or it can be without [the firewall]," Sims said, agreeing that ‘cloud’ is now used in myriad ways.

“Obviously it’s the buzzword du jour so you have to be careful about it,” he said.

But how can you be careful about a term that now refers to something that takes place internally, or externally, or – if you accept Nick Carr’s term CaaF – a combination of the two? At some point the term gets so broad that we need to stop calling it ‘cloud computing’ and simply call it ‘computing’ – because every form of computing is an instance of cloud computing. The phrase is beginning to collapse under the weight of the multitudinous things it refers to.

David Smith, an analyst with Gartner who has written extensively about cloud computing, says the term has indeed gotten stretched.

“You could take a very purist approach and say ‘There’s no such thing as an internal cloud, because by definition it’s use of external resources to a large extent,’” Smith says.

However, there’s “a bit of method to the madness,” in cloud’s double meaning. It’s a question of perspective: for users, the cloud can be seen as an internal resource – they tap into it through their PC’s without regard to its location. But for producers, those who build and maintain it, cloud is typically thought of in its classic definition as external.

Despite this reasonable explanation from Smith, he says “You see a lot of people talking past each other on this.”

Particularly obfuscating is the use of cloud to refer to virtualization. Because ‘cloud’ has often been used as a synonym for Software as a Service. And now that cloud is also used to mean virtualization, that suggests that virtualization and SaaS are the same thing – which is clearly not true.

“I don’t use it as a synonym for virtualization,” Smith says, “and when I hear people do it, I immediately understand their perspective and will talk with them at that level. It’s kind of hopeless to say it’s not cloud computing, because you can see the reasoning behind how they got to where they are – it’s just not worth fighting about.”

The problem, ultimately, is that the term cloud is still new, yet has already grown to encompass a dizzying array of configurations.

At this rate, where are we headed?

In the future, a conference call will be referred to as 'cloud conversation' because it’s voices moving freely over a network, accessed and inputted from both internal and external nodes (also known as phones, soon to be called cloud-voice-input modules). The article you’re reading might be called ‘cloud journalism’ because it can flow anywhere over the Internet, or can be sent internally over an intranet.

In fact, now that cloud computing is so all-embracing, the only thing that can no longer be called a cloud is, well, an actual cloud. Like, the kind that sits up in the sky, made of water.

Because these fluffy white things cannot move freely through disparate interconnected environments. They can only exist in one very narrow layer of the atmosphere, say 6,000 to 20,000 feet, in very specific atmospheric conditions. They can’t move like an app on a virtualized server network. They can’t come to earth, they can’t go out into space. Actual clouds are far too limited to deserve the term ‘cloud.’ For clarity, we should start calling them ‘limited-mobility water retention events.’

Oh dear, we can’t go for a walk today, because the sky is filled with limited-mobility water retention events. And we might experience Water-as-a-Service (rain). So we better bring our plastic-based mobile cloud firewall (umbrella).

Alas, if we’re not careful, the entire rickety structure of IT jargon might collapse. But actually, based on the history of ‘cloud computing’, maybe it already has.

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