Cloud computing, like any other new and growing market, attracts companies of all sorts and sizes. While there are plenty of serious and competent players in all layers of the cloud space (infrastructure, platform, and software), unfortunately there are also many companies that simply want to ride the wave of popularity, getting the press that the “cloud” is enjoying, and use that to improve their own sales, regardless of actually offering cloud services or products. This practice, which I’ve written about before, of slapping the cloud label on to old products, or even on to new products that aren’t cloud-related, is called “cloudwashing.”

This trend of dressing products and services as something they aren’t isn’t new, nor is it uncommon in the IT market. It seems like every five years or so a new buzzword comes along, and many companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon of labeling their every product with the latest tech terms. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again soon (probably with Big Data, which seems to be supplanting Cloud Computing as the must-be-in market for all tech companies). While cloudwashers, like any other group of companies, come in all shapes and sizes, they can be split up into two major groups: the intentional cloudwashers and the unintentional ones.

Unintentional cloudwashing

Regardless of how much it has evolved, and how far adoption has come over the past few years, cloud computing is still a new and maturing market. Like with any new market, there is still some confusion related to what exactly is necessary for a service or product to be considered cloud-related, both from the perspective of clients and from the perspective of service-providers. This confusion leads to some companies mislabeling their products, not out of a desire to mislead customers, but because they don’t quite understand that their product isn’t really a cloud product.

One very important distinction, that many companies (both buyers and sellers) often forget, is the one between being a cloud service and being a cloud-based service. Many companies advertise their services as being cloud services when, in fact, they are simply cloud-based. Cloud based services are services that leverage the cloud (usually cloud infrastructure) on their daily operation. Just because they are running in the cloud, however, does not mean that they are cloud services.

So what does an IT service or product need in order to be considered “cloud”? The best way to think about this is to see if the product or service has the key benefits associated with cloud computing:

  • Replacing capital expense with operational expense: if you have to make an investment in order to get started using the service, if you have to buy hardware, or anything along these lines, the service doesn’t deliver on this benefit.
  • Elasticity and scalability: Can the service/product grow as you need it to grow, without you having to guess how much capacity you’ll need in the future, or does it require you to provision things in advance? Is it possible to grow quickly? If the service can’t grow as you need it to, if capacity can’t be allocated dynamically, it probably isn’t a cloud service.
  • Cost optimizations: If the service doesn’t allow you to scale your resources up and down as needed in order to optimize your costs based on the usage rate, it doesn’t deliver this benefit.

While they may seem to be exclusively focused on the infrastructure side of the cloud, these same benefits apply to cloud software: if you have to purchase licenses in advance, as with traditional software, then it isn’t cloud software. The same goes for scalability: if you can’t quickly grow the number of users, and if you can’t pay-as-you-go for the users, increasing the number as needed, the cloud label probably does not apply.

Misleading the consumer

Some companies, however, aren’t so innocent. These are the companies that tried (or, in some cases, still try) to intentionally mislead customers by claiming the cloud label when their products and services are anything but. Fortunately for users, and for the market as a whole, this behavior has decreased steadily as the definition of cloud computing has improved. In cases where this still crops up, however, the same standards above can be applied to check if the cloud label is correct: does the service or product deliver on the recognized key benefits of cloud computing?

With the number of cloud computing definitions available today, it is pretty simple for a customer to discover if a product really deserves the cloud label or not. Companies should take note of this, and stop with the cloudwashing; consumers should actually look at the definitions and compare them with the offerings before making a purchase. Once both sides do their part, perhaps we can let another buzzword take the place of the cloud on marketer’s speeches.