What 'Cloud Computing' Does - And Doesn't - Mean


Sometimes, I think technologists get caught up in defining terms that, really, are just synonyms for other terms. Of course, this is just a guess on my part, since half the time, no one really knows what the terms are supposed to mean in the first place. Everybody just has a fuzzy idea and then somebody wants to lock the term in -- usually, somebody who's about to spend a whole lot of money on it -- and then the Intertubes slow down with gridlock debate over the precise meaning.


It does get frustrating, and sometimes it matters -- for instance, in my humble opinion, SOA should be a bit more defined and a tad less fuzzy at this stage of the game.


Frankly, however, I don't always see the need to lock down a definition, despite the fact that I'm a wordsmith. Case in point: cloud computing and software-as-a-service. A lot of people have been using these terms pretty much interchangeably, perhaps with the vague notion that cloud computing could extend beyond software to essentially renting hardware capacity or storage. And so far, I thought this worked.


A few recent posts have me questioning the terms, though. The first was written by enterprise architect Todd Biske, on his "Outside the Box" blog last week.


Biske believes the "fundamental difference" between software in the cloud and software-as-a-service is the level of service management. In other words, with "software in the cloud," you're getting no more than what you'd get if you bought a software CD and loaded it onto your PC. You might get a bit of support, but not a lot.


However, the term software-as-a-service provider implies more of an ongoing partnership, according to Biske.

"To provide Software as a Service, the relationship needs to go beyond just providing logins and a URL. I'm sure there are many things placed in contracts to try to better define 'the service,' but in reality, service is a differentiator."

Dale Vile, managing director of Freedom Dynamics, penned the second piece I read that questioned the ambivalence of "cloud computing." Unlike Biske, Vile doesn't try to nail down a definition of the term -- because, really, he thinks it's just an evolution of "virtualization" - but he does point out that vendors are adding to the confusion by giving different explanations:

"As everyone jumps onto the cloud computing bandwagon, it all gets mixed up and confused, just like Web 2.0. ... The trick is to think of it as a label for a trend at one level, and an industry bandwagon at another, and keep your expectations pretty low in terms of clarity and consistency for the time being. Don't however, dismiss the underlying trend it itself."

In short, whether it's cloud computing, SaaS or Web 2.0, you've still got to integrate it. But given the fluidity - shall we say? - of the terms, you may want to consider Biske's point and ask a few questions about how much service you'll get with your cloud computing and SaaS.


A good starting place, beside Biske's posts, is this recent in-depth feature on cloud computing's potential and pitfalls at CIO Insight. This article also points out, as Biske does, that just because you're subscribing to software in the cloud doesn't mean you're getting better service or use out of your technology.