Telling the difference between clouds and cloud-washing

Even now you’ll find people who claim that cloud computing is just marketing yammer. It’s not.

I can understand why you might think so. Cloud-washing—slapping a new coat of cloud paint on any old program or service—still happens all the time.

Far too many companies just stick a cloud label on their old offering and expect you to buy their “new” service. That doesn’t count. For example, Adobe Creative Cloud is largely software rental licensing. True, you can share images across it with its built-in Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) storage, but that’s about it when it comes to its “cloud.” There is no Photoshop in the cloud that you can run on any of your devices. Instead you still need to download and use a fat client to use it. This is not a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) play although you might think so from its name.

What makes this positioning especially annoying is that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defined cloud computing for us years ago.

So what is a cloud really? NIST tells us: “Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

A cloud must have five essential characteristics: On-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity or expansion, and measured service.

Let’s look closer. With on-demand self-service, the users can unilaterally provision or access computing resources as needed. Usually, but not always, this is done via a Web browser. While it’s nice to have DevOps ready to help, users spinning up a service with ordinary provisioning shouldn’t require any technical support handholding. If in your “cloud” someone has to manually spin up a server, you’re not using cloud computing.

By broad network access, NIST doesn’t mean that it must be available over the Internet. It’s just that the cloud resources must be made available over the network for all devices ranging from PCs to smartphones using open standard protocols such as TCP/IP, HTTP, HTML, XML, Java, and SOAP. If you’re requiring proprietary network standards or clients, you’re moving away from the standard open cloud to a proprietary solution.

With resource pooling, according to NIST, “The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources but may be able to specify location at a higher level of abstraction (e.g., country, state, or datacenter). Examples of resources include storage, processing, memory, and network bandwidth.”

From an end user’s viewpoint all this is abstracted. The “cloud” may be next door, it may be a thousand miles away. With a hybrid cloud, which makes use of both private and public cloud resources, it may be both. While IT should know the specifics of what’s where, for ordinary users the resources are just in the cloud, which no more has a fixed location than does the Internet.

Rapid elasticity and expansion are vital. In a cloud you don’t ask for five more servers, you go out and get them. Your computing resources are dynamically assigned, released, and reassigned according to your requirements.

So, for example, if you suddenly need a dozen more processors to handle an unexpected job, the system should be able to deliver those computing cycles to your application without any need for manual intervention. Then, when the job is done, those resources should then be automatically returned to the cloud ready for the next user to call upon them as needed.

Finally, just like a more mundane utility such as your electric power supplier, on a cloud you must be able to monitor your cloud systems usage and be billed for it according to your use of the “service.” There’s a reason why cloud computing is related to utility computing. Of course your service isn’t measured in Kilowatt hours used but instead is measured in terms of storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts.

If your cloud service doesn’t provide all of these features, what you’re using may not be a cloud. It may still work perfectly well for you—there’s nothing inherently great about a service just because it’s offered over a cloud—but you may want to take a close look at your service. After all, from a practical viewpoint, the big difference between cloud services and other models is that the cloud tends to be cheaper.


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