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.


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,, 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 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.