The true definition of cloud computing is still lost on some IT pros


In almost any enterprise IT shop, you are likely to see at least one laptop sticker that says, “There is no cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer.” I understand that the saying is good for a laugh, but aside from that, it could not be further from the truth.

If we stick to the definition of cloud computing outlined by the U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the cloud has five attributes: on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and measured service. Do you notice anything on that list about location?

Cloud computing, in all its various deployment models, has fundamentally changed how computing works. It is not a place, but rather a way of managing IT resources.

If we dig deeper into the NIST definition of cloud computing, we can see it has three common service models:

Software as a service is a software deployment model where an application is delivered over the internet.

Platform as a service is a platform for the deployment of an application with the underlying infrastructure completely abstracted.

Infrastructure as a service is a model that allows for the deployment of typical infrastructure components, such as servers and storage, for running arbitrary workloads.

It is easy to understand why people think and often act like the cloud is a place.

Again, we have nothing about the location of the resources on this list. That is because the cloud is not a place.

To understand the confusion around the technology, it helps to think about the average consumer. To the average non-IT person, the cloud is a place to store documents, pictures and file backups. It could be iCloud, Dropbox or other consumer-centric services. We saw the term cloud work its way into the lexicon of the masses around the time of the emergence of the smartphone. For IT professionals, cloud computing means something entirely different. It has evolved from a place to store and access documents into a new way of thinking about IT services.

Simply put, cloud computing is a flexible and agile way of designing IT services, allowing resources to be fluid and elastic. It can be anywhere — a data center, Amazon, Azure, a local colocation facility or a mix of locations. Cloud is a method to describe how IT happens and not where IT happens. It is about building infrastructure in a way that can scale easily and be consumed by the applications in a predictable way via an API. Cloud is also about building applications that scale when needed and that can run on any infrastructure, regardless of location.

It is easy to understand why people think and often act like the cloud is a place. Marketing departments misuse the word so often that the result is rampant confusion. When I see an IT engineer with a sticker proclaiming that the cloud is “just somebody else’s computer,” I usually presume that either this person simply does not understand the true definition of cloud computing and why it is a good thing for everyone or that he or she understands but distrusts it because it is such a signignifcant shift in thinking.

Cloud is about rethinking and redesigning IT services. To overcome this idea that it is just a bunch of computers running somewhere else, vendors, integrators and IT departments need to stop using the term incorrectly.

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