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Deciphering the term "cloud computing"

Is Cloud Computing just a fancy marketing term for distributed computing or is it the sign of a new trend? It depends who's using it. Here's a closer look.

Is cloud computing just a fancy marketing term for distributed computing or is it the sign of a new trend? It depends who's using it. Here's a closer look.

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There's a new term being bandied about called "cloud computing." Cloud computing is a bit of a catch-all term that can mean different things to different people. It's very conceptual in nature. Some vendors use the term interchangeably with the term "distributed computing." Others substitute it for the term "utility computing" or "hosted computing." Others use it when they mean SaaS.

When you boil it down, cloud computing is really a mix of all those phrases. What's key is to understand what your particular vendor means by it. Once you have the other terms nailed down, you can infer what a specific vendor means when they're selling you their product.

Distributed computing

The concept of distributed computing has been around for some time now. The idea is pretty simple: You take a bunch of computers and link them together for a specific use. All the computers share the same data, harnessing the power of their collective CPU cycles and storage space. You wind up with one giant virtual supercomputer or a massive network that's more than the sum of its parts.

You've probably heard of distributed computing first through the Seti@Home project. This is an effort of volunteers who have linked together their computers in the search for extraterrestrials. Each computer downloads a slice of data that's been gathered from the Arecibo observatory and runs an algorithm that searches through the data for patterns that would indicate ET communications.

Utility computing

The key word in the term "utility computing" is the word "utility." Vendors use the term to put you in the frame of mind of a public utility like the phone company or the electric company. The amount of computer resources you use is metered, and you're charged for the usage. The more you use, the more you pay

Most likely you're using a group of computers in a utility computing solution, either as a group of CPUs working together in a form of distributed computing or as a massive storage solution. However, it's also possible to have a single computer, such as a mainframe, at a vendor's co-location that you have access to.

The cloud

In networking, we sometimes use the term 'cloud" to refer to any wide area networking scenario such as a Frame Relay cloud. When used in the term "cloud computing," the word "cloud" refers specifically to the Internet. It's one of those cases where marketing folk have co-opted technical jargon for their own nefarious purposes.

Cloud computing ™ Dell???

Cloud computing is used by many different companies including Amazon, IBM, Salesforce.com, Sun, and Google, just to name a few. Interestingly enough, however, Dell has recently said that it owns the term. Chances are that such a trademark wouldn't hold up in court. Even so, it's interesting to see what an important term cloud computing has become -- big enough that a major company wants to claim it as its own.

Putting it all together

So what does it mean when you put the concept all together? Cloud computing boils down to little more than a way for you to take some of the work you're doing today on systems that you run in-house and doing them elsewhere. When a hardware vendor like Sun or Dell uses the phrase, they'll mean it in more of the utility computing sense, where you're renting the services you need from an off-site area. Companies like Salesforce, Google, and Amazon lean more to the  SaaS  meaning of the phrase, where you're running services that they provide on their equipment. IBM, for one, uses the term to mean whatever it takes to get your business. Either you can run your services on their machines, or they'll work with you to create custom apps that they also host.

Cloud computing resources

Because so many companies use the term differently, it can be hard to keep up with its meaning. Here are some rescources that discuss cloud computing:

Cloud computing resources on TechRepublic and ZDNet include:

Finallly, CBS Interactive's News.com has a video with Dan Farber that covers some of the issues around clould computing.

The bottom line for IT Leaders

When a vendor starts throwing terms like "cloud computing" at you, try not to let your eyes glaze over. Depending on what the vendor's main line of business is, they could mean several things with the term. Just remember what cloud computing can mean to you -- taking some of the systems that you're using now and handing them over to someone else. This can be a good thing from a management and budgetary standpoint, but it can be a bad thing from a security and reliabilty standpoint.

When you take all of it together, you can drill through the fog of the marketing meaning of cloud computing to see if the vendor is selling nothing but air.

9 comments
No User
No User

I must say that you have the best perspective. You just lay out the definitions with out taking the "Company Line" and ramming it down our throats as an unstoppable transformation that is the greatest thing since sliced bread and heading our way like a tidal way. This concept is certainly being pushed but I can't see it having more then a limited appeal. It's certainly not for the masses. I can see big companies like you mentioned that move from here to there and back again using it to some extent. It will only be cheaper until enough companies get hooked. I could see more of an appeal for novice home users if the price was right but it wont be after enough people get hooked. It's certainly not ever going to be a viable alternative to In House Core Systems. How in the world would they be able to setup and support proprietary Core Systems. A quick example of that would be Banking and Finance which use a variety of those kind of proprietary Core Systems and various very large accounting Core Systems and Oracle database systems and so on. It's just not going to happen. So what would they actually replace? We have vendors that require PC identification and tunneling to the PC and other hyper security identifiers. They require positive identification to specifically you and PC XYZ with IP Address XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX in room 37B with phone and extension number 123-456-7890 Ext 4321 dot period. It won't replace that. Keep in mind you also have folks that you do business with that place certain requirements on you. Banking, Financial and other Industry Core System vendors do have Data Centers for small companies and institutions that can't afford In House Systems so perhaps they could do things on a comparative small scale but you will have Support and Security issues that would be hard to over come. I can't see them over coming the support issues unless it's Retail software and basically low end services. It could have a place for those who have a use for a limited service and if you need to use a program just once or a few times. It will be like your Google or Yahoo free email account a lot of folks use it but would you pay for it and more to the point would you use it to run your business? For most the answer is NO!!! I would say that it would be limited to Retail software which they have pushed for control of the "USE OF" one way or another for ever. I think this is just another angle on that to Seize control and regulate and charge for usage of Retail software. Whoop-T-Do. I think that it may have a chance at being more appealing on a modest scale if it's marketed as an additional service as opposed to a replacement of in house operations. It could make a for a limited backup of some services and have some appeal to mobile users and low end home users. It gives me the impression of buying a new car but you don't get the car instead what you get is permission to ride a bus. Then you must pay for the ride and obey their rules. The charge is based on not only where you are going but what you are going to do when you get there. If you are going to work that is more important then going to a movie so it costs more and so on. Once you hand it all over to someone you bet your sweet bippy that the cost will go up. Need better service the cost goes up. They will spend their time looking for new angles to charge you. A good example would be vendors who instead of just selling you a license for a given amount of PC's need to know on top of that how many users you have and how many customers you have and how many transactions you will do and so on before they can come up with a price. It would be a security nightmare waiting to happen and you know it would. You would have public companies which are just investments not real companies and their revenue takes precedence over your security and other needs. Imagine how foolish you will look in court saying that you moved to cloud computing because at the time you did it was cheaper then doing it in house. ;) What happens when one of those companies go bankrupt or gets flipped and the service gets cut or price inflates or both? You will be SOL. When you make the cuts and become completely dependent on it you can guarantee that it will be bend over Red Rover time for you. You will be getting half the quality at twice the price. ;) I'm sure they will shoot for the Stars many things like this (which are going to change the world) have been tried before and always shall but they have limited appeal or go bust. Can you say Segway? Dell announced that it's bringing some services state side that it outsourced to India. They said that those folks in India are smart business people once they have you hooked on cheap prices and move everything over they raise the price... Dah no kidding!!! C/net had an article on Microsoft saying that Windows is dead (Yippee ki-yay) and (Microsoft's cloud OS) Midori is the future. Hmmm funny how that falls on the heels of an article predicting that the Linux desktop is being expected to over take Windows by 2015. ;)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

you might be onto something there. Hope you have more luck than the last time TR tried to raise this topic. Where I basically said it was marketting BS. Not read anything to change my mind either. On TR or anywhere else. :p

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Cloud Computing is one of those terms that seems to be appearing all over the place. Vendors from IBM to Amazon to Google are all employing it. As I point out in Decision Central however, what they mean is almost a function of what they sell: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/decisioncentral/?p=133 Are you currently employing a cloud computing solution? What's been your experience and what does the term mean to you?

Tin Man
Tin Man

Timesharing computers in the '70s (when computers were expensive) come to mind?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

duplicate post, caused by TR webserver cluster, removed. I'm even getting two or three 404 errors from the root url "www.techrepublic.com" before getting to the splash and finally the front page. The 404s from "My Workspace" have simply become a given now but on the website's front page? It seems to be getting worse.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

From what I can tell, SaaS and "Cloud Computing" are just rebrandings of the ages old "Network Computing". With Novell, you had a server provided "home folder" not located on your local machine which you used to store your data. With Windows, you have network shares normally mounted to drive letters so users can store data on server provided space rather than the local machine. With Unix, you have NFS/Samba which both provide access to storage over the network. Each platform has it's own way of storing programs on a remote server and running them locally or by a remote desktop control program. Suddenly, what we've been doing since coax and before is now something new because we call it "SaaS" or "Cloud Computing". The small "new" change I can see is more on the SaaS side where providers supply customers with only the amount of processing time/power they need a-la-"utility computing" but that too is slightly different again I guess. For my own use, I have to understand how the security works. If I store my calendar on Google's servers, is my user data file encrypted and bound to my account only? If the eula states that data placed on google's servers is there's to itemize and include into the search engine and market research, are my events, tasks and contacts being included into that database or left as a seporate object only I can interact with? I just can't yet shake the heebeejeebees of having my intimate data "out there" in the intertubes cloud. I may be able to shake the ill will though if I can understand how each service contains the user's data in a way that allows only them to access it.

jonreid-22226556489733442570676913635490
jonreid-22226556489733442570676913635490

Sorry, but I disagree with the comment that cloud computing = mainframe timesharing, at least from a customer's perspective. Timesharing was used when you had a finite, inflexible resource which was being apportioned out using a rationing style cost mechanism. In contrast, cloud computing is an unlimited flexible resource (or is made to appear to be by the service provider using virtualisation, disk arrays, application/data partitioning etc) which is easily bought into as low cost units on a seat/app/storage basis for a specified contract period. The hardware/OS layer is completely abstracted out of the equation.

John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro
John Sheesley - TechRepublic Pro

Something's up with the Community platform lately. It's been going down a couple of times a day. Unfortunately, that's no my area, so I don't know what's going on.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

This was just the place the venting came out after it happened. Some days it's just a nucance while other days it pretty much bars me from TR within the time limits I have for reading. I spent most of yesterday looking at 404 errors on the front page, forums and user profile spaces. The cluster felt it prudent to duplicate a few of my posts also though one was entirely my own fault. As a tech most of us realize servers go down and have issues. The regularity and increased frequency are what cause me questions. The readers are limited to what the company provides us in exchange for seeint it's advertisements. The writers are limited to providing the content posted within the framework of the website. The tech admin guys keep insolated from the readers and do what they can to keep the cluster running. I am greatful for the service provided by TR but the novelty of IE crashing from the overwelming Flash content, 404s and duplications wears off. If it was not for the content provided, my visits would have gone the same way as my visiting CNet regularily.

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