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Cloud Talk

Andre Yee

Defining Cloud Computing

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With a blog called Cloud Talk, you'd expect that we'd get around to defining cloud computing. Probably sooner rather than later but it's not quite as easy as you might imagine.

Earlier this year, the Cloud Computing Journal asked 21 experts to define cloud computing in their own words. Impressive list of experts but no clarity on how to define cloud computing emerged. I'm not knocking all the experts but some "definitions" were downright confusing - you can read it for yourself here.

It's ironic that so much hype can be generated over something so poorly defined. Perhaps it's indicative of a problem with the technology sector today - short on clarity Yet, I think the challenge in defining cloud computing lies in the fact that it's part technology architecture, part business model. Any attempt to define it exclusively in technology terms alone will likely be unsatisfactory.

When it comes to definitions, I think simplicity rules and tend to lean toward "less is more. That said, here's my definition of cloud computing.

Cloud Computing is an on-demand delivery model for IT services or applications with the characteristics of multi-tenant hosting, elasticity (variable capacity) and utility based billing.

What do you think? You may not be an expert but please share your thoughts on how you'd define cloud computing.


Left my comments at my blog. What do you think about removing applications from the definition? Matt

It's funny how hard it is to define cloud computing. I was telling a colleague the other day that I think it's somewhat of a linguistics dilemma because our technologies are outpacing the rate at which our language can devise concepts (and words) to describe them.

Describing cloud computing as a composite of characteristics is appealing but it doesn't feel good... For example, if the solution charges the user on a recurring (usually monthly) basis, then it's considered to be "cloudish". Is a fee schedule really a component of how the technology is defined though? Really?

Someone might start calling Comcast a "cloud" service.

It's like:
Son: "What's a cloud?"
Father: "A cloud is puffy and white"

Son: "Wait, no, what IS it?"
Father: "Umm... I'm not sure, something to do with water or..maybe ice. But they're all over the place and they cause rain!"


Maybe we should be asking "What are Cloud computing solutions made of?"

Hi Andre. It might help to go back to where many (not all) but many believe the term originated. Eric Schmidt, CEO Google, used it in an interview in 2006. He was at the time referring to ability to perform scalable data processing, or computation tasks:

"It starts with the premise that the data services and architecture should be on servers. We call it cloud computing – they should be in a "cloud" somewhere."

Since Amazon launched capability a month later some speculate he was just stealing Amazon's thunder. Amazon, of course was promoting Amazon EC2 which... "is a web service that provides resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make web-scale computing easier for developers."

Since then I believe the term has expanded to encompass all the 'aaS' models including on-demand software applications like Salesforce.com aka the original SaaS and web service-enabled discrete functions like one of my favorites, Identity-as-a-Service (IDaaS).

So in the end I would agree with your definition of what cloud computing is TODAY although I submit it is far too broad. It is, however, a trend and ultimately the definition will harden with successful business models.

Matt - thanks for stopping by and I'll check out your blog. Regarding your suggestion to leave apps out of the definition...so you see SaaS as something completely different to cloud computing, rather than a subset or variant?

I think when you look at my definition, it speaks to IT services and applications, delivered in a particular way. Perhaps you could argue that billing model shouldn't be part of it but in fact, I think many people view the billing model as the most attractive proposition of cloud computing.
But let's say I agree with your point ...what then would you say that cloud computing is "made of?. What's the essence?

Jeff - I think your comments are helpful to the challenge of defining cloud computing. The definition I offer is broad but that's because the cloud services can in fact be more varied than simply computational and storage capacity.

Do you have an opinion as to whether the billing model should be part of the definition?

Andre, I agree that could computing is more. Really my point is that the definition today is more that what it was a couple years ago and it is growing. The definition will continue to grow until someone tries to apply the label to something completely inappropriate and the community calls them out. If you don't know the boundary you find the boundary when you cross it.

Yes the billing model should be a part of the definition because I believe the definition should be from the perspective of a user/buyer. So I think of it, and describe it like this:

From a marketing perspective: Cloud computing is the overarching term for platform, application, or application services delivered to customers in a way that grants them the most flexibility in implementation and consumption. It encompasses all the "as-a-Service" terms.

From a customer perspective: Cloud computing is a new way your organization can securely consume IT platform, application, or discrete business functions that minimizes your investment and ownership costs and your implementation time. The flexible payment model allows you to pay for what you actually use.

In hindsight these maybe too simplistic. But, we need to nail the latter description - value proposition to a user/buyer or cloud computing will be a architectural or marketing term and in a few years will go the way of SOA.


Jeff - helpful comment. Apparently, our Fed government is working on its own definition for cloud computing.


Well, I wouldn't say it's 'completely different', but you're own definition excludes salesforce because SF is not multi-tenant.

I see SaaS as a use-case of cloud computing rather than part of the definition. And you can have SaaS without it being in a cloud.

Consider this question: What is the architecture of your new SaaS application? If SaaS is defined as Cloud, then you can't use 'cloud' to describe the design. I'd rather have a good term for describing the cloud infrastructure model than use it as a categorization for as-a-service applications.

btw - I don't think I'll ever win this argument. As an industry, we're way too far down the path of using the terms.

What a great topic. I agree that Cloud Computing has an element of marketecture spin on it which any technology story is prone to have. However, the simple and elegant capability...and actually the commercial viability of the capability...to deliver complex business apps without building out a server farm, without complex load-balancing devices and software, and with a focus on business value and not on the technology stack upon which the solution is based is really the secret sauce of the Cloud. The levels of cost avoidance are several deep in the model. The billing model is really just icing on the cake for many companies because it allows the opex costs to spread in an even fashion and supports easier financial management of the solution. However, there will still be a small percentage of organizations that still want to buy capex purchases and won't be as enamored of an annuity/subscription model. And regardless of the billing model, the complexity of the solutions which the Cloud can deliver is growing at a rapid pace. Beacuse of this we can expect to see hybrid Clouds become the norm for major enterprises, where companies manage what's in the Cloud and what's inside their internal network with common tools used to develop, manage, and deploy solutions which are largely Cloud-based, but peek inside corporate firewalls to get critical data, access to heritage databases, and consume web services deployed internally, but delivered in a secure method across the Cloud. Those solutions are common in enterprise-class Cloud-deployed solutions today. Those tools will be developed by pure-play Cloud vendors first and foremost. I think the definition of “the Cloud? will tend to get blurrier as those hybrid solutions can be developed and deployed using Cloud-based tools, even when they surface features or functions which they contribute to a stack that may exist inside corporate firewalls. At the end of the day, Enterprise Architecture is moving to the Cloud and I think we will see a lot of definitions of the Cloud as companies embrace, and attempt to define, their impression of the cloud from loads of different service provider perspectives.

Matt - thanks. I do think multi-tenancy is rightfully part of the cloud computing definition but perhaps others may have differing view. It's true that we're down the road with the perceptions and terminology of what the cloud is and isn't

Mike - you covered lots of ground in your comment. I agree with the idea that what we need is common set of tools and your allusion to the need for a common security model is correct.

When you talk of "Enterprise Architecture moving to the Cloud", you're thinking about "Private Clouds"? Do you have an opinion on that variation?

Andre -- i think the Private Cloud is actually capable of obscuring what will really ultimately be the best state Architecture. Myriad hardware, software and services vendors have an investment in companies embracing the Private cloud when really they should be focused on innovation in key areas like Virtualization, Security and Scalability in the Public Cloud imho.

MSFT would love to see a really confusing mix of private cloud networks to continue to sell more apps and databases to build them with. The way Private Cloud stories are unfolding makes me feel like people are considering building their own proprietary EDI VANs instead of embracing the Cloud in it's current state and pushing vendors to innovate. I would rather see vendor innovation in the Public Cloud than investment in Private Cloud infrastructures.

I completely agree. Frankly, I don't quite get the Private cloud proposition - it feels like more SOA & provisioning services repackaged. Maybe someone (like a Private Cloud vendor) can shed some light here.

If we leave marketing spin out of the equation the true concept of cloud computing isn't really all that difficult to define.

When a developer writes a piece of software that needs to be running on a server (typically because it provides some type of web service or web application) he/she has multiple options.

1. Buy/lease hardware, operating system, networking equipment, and install/manage at home, at work, or in shared datacenter.

2. Lease one or more "virtual" machines at a hosting provider that allow me to login to the operating system, configure it, install my software, and do everything just as if this box was my very own (but external networking is generally handled for you).

3. Deploy to a cloud! Forget about the hardware. Forget about the operating system. I deliver my APPLICATION code to a cloud provider and let them figure out what virtual machine, operating system, hardware, networking, to use to run my application. The best example of this is Google App Engine. Another good example is Salesforce.com AppExchange.

The cloud is another example in a long line of fantastic ideas that have been molested by marketers in a vain attempt to co-opt the term for their own purposes. Eventually, the term becomes so diluted with "creative interpretations" a social backlash results where the term either becomes meaningless or even degenerates into a negative association. And finally, once the market is completely sick of the term, it actually fulfills it's original goal (even if it has to be renamed due to brand degeneration).

* Enterprise
* Grid Computing
* Application Service Provider (which became SAAS)
* Data Consolidation
* E-commerce
* Push Technology

Matt - thanks for pulling back the curtains and reminding us of simplicity of the cloud computing concepts. Darn marketers!

Perhaps it's easier define cloud services, because CIOs and IT managers typically already understand the managed service and hosting service models.

It's typically the selective out-tasking of IT and communications requirements to a service provider. The services are often consumed in a hybrid usage environment -- where in-house delivered services co-exist with the out-tasked services.

David Deans
Business Technology Roundtable

David - thanks for your comment. The reality is as you say - cloud services co-existing with on premise services

To complement this post, here's a nice little infographic about cloud computing that's much easier on the eyes and the brain than a long blog article: http://bit.ly/cZLjN3

Andre Yee blogs about cloud computing, SaaS, Web 2.0 and other emerging technologies that matter to businesses.

Andre Yee

Andre Yee is an entrepreneur and technologist with nearly 20 years of experience in the business of technology.

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