So what does “The Cloud” mean now?

I was recently in a meeting and demo about a move to “The Cloud”, specifically Office 365, where I was surprised to encounter some new definitions of “The Cloud"

I think it’s fair to say that as Cloud-based services have evolved, so have opinions and the generally accepted definition of “The Cloud”, at least by IT professionals.

This evolution is bound to be confusing when the same term could mean different things to different people, due in part to the proliferation of technical terminology into common language, and all for the wrong reasons.

Consumer Perception of “The Cloud”

For example, in an embarrassingly blatant Cloud Washing effort Microsoft have muddied the waters by using “Cloud” in a bizarre ad on TV (in the UK, US and other countries too I imagine..)

Really? This is “The Cloud” now Microsoft?

In the video the lady exclaims “To The Cloud!”, and fixes a family photo using Windows Live Photo Gallery, a free photo management & editing program that is part of the free Windows Live Essentials family (great program, I use it for managing my photos before uploading to the web). The focus of the ad is the editing of the photo… which has NOTHING to do with the Cloud.. I’m not sure my parents need to know anything about this Cloud when they just want to edit photos..

The Cloud vs The Internet

Sure, they are uploaded to somewhere on/in the Internet, which could be represented in a network diagram surrounded by the Cloud-based shape whence the terminology came; but what is the obsession with labelling this “The Cloud”?

Do people really call Facebook “The Cloud”? Or Hotmail? Or Picasa? Or Gmail? Or Twitter? Or Flickr? Perhaps Usenet & newsgroups?

NO!

You can call it “The Cloud” if you are interested the cloud computing-specific properties which distinguish the service from a simple hosted solution. Otherwise it’s the Internet, the World Wide Web or just The Web. For consumers, it’s not really changed a lot in recent years other than the infuriating hype perpetuated by all providers..

Brand & Reputation

The brands mentioned may well be cloud computing services, or Software as a Service (SaaS). However using the term “Cloud” with respect to consumers is pointless and only adds to the confusion.

The SaaS services listed above are well-known brands, as they HAVE to be; there MUST be a level of trust between the user and the service, especially if they are entrusting data such as email and photos (less so with some services e.g. Twitter perhaps..).

If I told anybody I was moving all my photos to “The Web”, “The Internet” or “The Cloud”, they would ask where specifically, i.e. who was providing a trustworthy and value-for-money service that I am happy to use.

Reputations can be ruined in a day; security issues with Dropbox and other providers mean that any serious faux pas and users are likely to switch en masse to another provider; another “cloud-based service” perhaps, but one which is trusted appropriately. This Economist article about the Keys to the cloud castle does a great job of summarising the issues that Dropbox and its competitors face around security.

So where does that leave us?

Cloud Services

“The Cloud” provides a service of some description – Infrastructure, Platform, Application/Software (all of the usual “as a Service” or “aaS” offerings.. )

Significant cost savings can exist when using the appropriate cloud computing model and services; it is doubtful that the services would exist without a business model that involves some degree of efficiency. It’s really not all hype!

However, I was surprised to be met with a prospective client’s expectation of “The Cloud”; it was thought that ALL desktop applications could and should be replaced by cloud computing services – no client other than a browser. Maybe one day…

Scalability: Capacity vs Performance

One of the strongest arguments for considering any Cloud-based service is the scalability requirement of the organisation. Where scalability is important, (especially elasticity for expansion and contraction) or dispersed geographies, it can be much cheaper to go “To the Cloud!” than a typical hosted or on-premise environment.

Moore’s law has predicted the exponential increase in computing power over the years fairly accurately, doubling roughly every 18 months for the last two decades. However increases in magnetic disk storage have surpassed this and doubled about every 12 months!

(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore’s_law)

So storage is getting cheaper faster; a lot of the earlier cloud services available to the public had significant storage vs performance requirements e.g. Hotmail, Geocities, Flickr.

This trend has continued and it is no surprise that some Cloud-based email or storage services are practically unlimited; Mozy for backup is completely unlimited and Gmail (~7GB) or Office365 (~25GB) offer more storage than is typically needed just for email.

Microsoft’s Azure or Amazon’s EC2 Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings costs are based primarily on “Computing Hour” i.e. how long the processors are running for, not how much storage is needed (although this remains a small factor).

This means that for the foreseeable future the Cloud is not going to have comparable processing power to a desktop PC and remain scalable. The Virtual Desktop Interface (VDI) that was being described in the meeting I was at as “The Cloud” is simply not going to exist in the near future in my opinion.

Summary: Keeping up with the Moores

Which came first, the really fast processor or the compute hour-intensive software? Either way, desktop PCs will continue to evolve at their current rate, which would suggest that they will always remain ahead of the cloud model’s processing power so there will always be a case for local applications, and that is before you consider any offline requirements.

Next – SaaS, IaaS, PaaS options

In the next few posts on this topic, I’ll be exploring the viable options that I have used, am using, or am about to use or deploy in terms of Software, Infrastructure or Platform as as Service – some practical advice and experience of the Hybrid Cloud options available currently, including the possible impact for organisations in the Channel Islands or other location where jurisdiction is a hot topic.