Cloud Computing: The Ever Expanding Buzzword

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.’
Posted December 16, 2008

James Maguire

James Maguire

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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.

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Tags: cloud computing, Google, Microsoft, virtualization

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