Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fog Reigns in The Cloud

Randy Davis, VP Sales and Marketing Operations

Look at these search results headlines from a simple Google search: "What is The Cloud?"

August 19, 2008: "Can We Please Define Cloud Computing?"
February 27, 2009: "So what is the Cloud, exactly? Experts want to know"
July 24, 2009: "Twenty-One Experts Define Cloud Computing"
July 15, 2010: "Clarifying the SaaS vs. Cloud Integration Confusion"
July 27, 2010: "CompTIA Launches Effort to Define the Cloud"
August 4, 2010: "Cloud Customer Confusion Continues"
December 6, 2010: "Confusion in the Cloud"
March 28, 2011: "Confusion in the Cloud"
April 14, 2011: "Experts cut through the cloud computing confusion"
May 5, 2011: "Cloud Computing Confusion: Is It the Name?"

Should it really take over four years to define something that virtually everybody uses by now?

I've been following the Cloud discussion on LinkedIn, and have been shocked at the disparity between opinions in answer to the question: what is Cloud Computing? In fact, I would say the discussion is an old fashioned argument amongst denominational practitioners! Fundamentalists, liberals and middle-of-the-roaders are all having their say.

I'm not technically challenged, and can participate in complex discussions about technology without (usually) embarrassing myself. But I can't find one, decent definition of The Cloud that I can sink my teeth into. Defining The Cloud seems frustratingly elusive. When you have to resort to PC Magazine or Wikipedia to define an industry or technical term, because the industry or technocrats cannot articulate an agreed definition themselves, you know things are in a mess.

I've come to the conclusion that the definition of Cloud Computing is about to be yanked away from the experts and placed firmly in the hands of the users, who don't care a hoot about layers of protocols, servers, virtualization, infrastructures, nodes, networks or nothin'. They just use it and think of it as "the Internet."

In fact, PC Magazine, speaking to everyday users, says flatly, "The Cloud is the Internet."

Wikipedia, speaking to everyday users, says the Cloud "refers to the on-demand provision, software... via a computer network rather than from a local computer." Ok, that works, sort of, but it still doesn't satisfy.

So my question is, "Is a definition of The Cloud necessary?" If it is, necessary to whom?

I contend that, for all intents and purposes, The Cloud is the old "computer network" (represented in diagrams as a cloud), that became the old "Web" (represented in diagrams as a cloud) that became the new "Cloud" (represented in diagrams as a cloud). We've seen this all before when it was more controlled, and thus defined, by big hardware, software and network providers. But now, when almost anybody can play, and "the definition" of The Cloud is re-defined almost daily, it's become a bit like herding cats back into the corral.

If you object that one has to understand the Cloud's technological and organizational complexity in order to safely participate in it, I say "bunk." Eventually one has to trust the chosen provider of services. You have to do what you've always had to do with any provider that provides important services to you, and to whom you entrust sensitive information (banks, brokers, doctors): you have to satisfy yourself that they will protect what you entrust to them, and then you have to trust them, and then you have to watch them very carefully.

If you think something that goes into The Cloud goes into the great unknown, I think you are wrong. I think you can know where stuff is, and what is being done and used to protect it, because I think you can get to know a provider of cloud services. I think you can know whether something is being stored at Rackspace or at AT&T. I think you can know whether a data center is Tier 4 or Tier 1. I think you can know whether data is being encrypted or not. I think you can know whether your data is safely being replicated and geographically separated or not. I think you can know whether a provider is PCI certified or SAS70 compliant or not. For corporations dealing with cloud service providers, these are important and critical things to know. It is important to realize that these things can be known -- even if you are dealing with a cloud service provider.

It is my conviction that, for most people, The Cloud is an experience rather than a thing. It is an adjective rather than a noun. It doesn't have to be defined because it has become undefinable. It's like trying to capture fog in a net.

If The Cloud is an experience, an adjective, then it should be known by its attributes, by what it does or provides. For most people, it reduces or eliminates the need for hardware and software and additional IT resources. Or it provides a way to get access to some really powerful, really cool features by renting instead of buying. (Given this, I find it surprising that SMBs are some of the most reluctant users of cloud services.) Or it provides a way to almost instantly grow or shrink one's use (and cost) of computer systems and everything it takes to support them. Or it provides a way to take advantage of a security infrastructure that they could never afford in a million years.

So where does this leave me in my search for a definition of The Cloud. I still don't have one. But it feels a lot like the Internet, or something close to it.

What do you think?

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