I've been increasingly confused about where the boundary of 'cloud computing' is. At a recent cloud computing conference I attended, almost any approach was considered cloud computing. Grids, utilities, SaaS, ASP. You name it, some vendor was claiming it was cloud computing. No one can seem to clearly define it either, and I think that is deliberate. Marketing hype has stuck the 'cloud' label to everything to make their companies' products sexy, 'with it'. I swear I could convince an audience that a relabeled mainframe was a cloud computer.
And so it went at a talk I attended last night. The talk was entitled
The Business Value of Cloud Computing
and we had two engaging industry people talking about the cloud from opposite, but possibly complementary corners.
In the right corner was Paul Steinberg of Soonr.com. He spoke generically about SaaS (Software as a Service) and rolled out the usual suspects, GMail and Zoho Office as examples of this trend. Now I ask you, if GMail was delivered via a mainframe, would it suddenly lose it's cloud status? But conversely, if I throw up a web page on my ISP delivered website that has a rich client application in the page, would that be SaaS or cloud computing? At one point Paul said "SaaS is the same as cloud computing". Once the sales and marketing people get loose, you know the hype machine is in full swing.
In the left corner was Zorawar Biri Singh, from IBM. Biri presented us with some corporate IBM slides in a dizzying fashion, never allowing anything to be viewed in detail or explaining much. His role appeared to be to tell eveyone that IBM was in the cloud game and that their experience and dominance (in high end services?) would bring forth the goods in this arena. He had a couple of interesting details. Firstly, virtual machines were rapidly outstripping hardware machines. (Go out and buy VMWare NYSE: VMW ?) Secondly that while Amazon is selling CPU time for 10 cents an hour, he thought that the real cost might be closer to half a cent an hour. Do I hear 'supernormal profits' and IBM's rush to participate? One member of the audience questioned what sustainable advantage IBM might have in this game? Answer: "waffle, waffle, blah, blah, waffle". We've seen IBM do this before, last time it was SOA (service oriented architecture). IBM's solution was typically expensive and required a lot of IT and programmer time. Bottom like for Biri - cloud computing cuts costs. And IBM will be just the company to help you do that, no really.
So it looks like IBM is looking to build a rich server platform in the sky.
The problem with the cloud computing hype is that the customer doesn't care how the server parts work. In the same way I don't really know what fuels are delivered the power to my house. All I care about is that it is there and complain about it when the summer blackouts arrive. Most customers care about what it means for them. Is their client machine software going to be installed or web delivered? What feautures does it have? What does it cost? Where should teh data reside, and if the cloud, is it secure? Increasingly it will be "Can I get access to my software and data from any device, anywhere?". And increasingly that will mean mobile devices, from laptops to smart phone sized ones.
What few vendors talk about, is that the really power of the cloud is that software and data will increasingly be able to talk to each other out of their silos. That software will be able to draw on other software and data using a lot of resources to deliver really powerful information processing and delivery services.
Then the rain will fall on all of us.