Cloud Computing, Part 1: Some Breaks in the Fog

Pity the Patent and Trademark Office examining attorney who gave Dell the green light propelling its trademark application for the term “cloud computing” toward the home stretch this summer. That particular individual was obviously unaware that the phrase had become, over the course of a year, one of the hottest buzzwords in the tech industry.

Not surprisingly, the PTO quickly rescinded Dell’s initial approval for the trademark — after taking some lumps for allowing the application to get as far as it did.

The irony is that Dell was denied the trademark because “cloud computing” has achieved the status of a commonly used term — but common though it may be, this ubiquitous industry phrase is, at best, nebulous.

Wikipedia describes it as “the Internet-based (“cloud”) development and use of computer technology (“computing”) with the cloud serving as a metaphor for the Internet. It is a general concept that incorporates Software as a Service (SaaS), Data as a Service (DaaS), Web 2.0 and other recent, well-known technology trends, in which the common theme is reliance on the Internet for satisfying the computing needs of the users.”

68 Million References

If this all seems too hazy (cloud computing must have an established definition — a search for the term on Google yields 68 million references, after all), consider the market stats Merrill Lynch served up to the industry earlier this year. It predicted the cloud computing market would reach the phenomenal sum of US$160 billion by 2011, with $95 billion going into applications for business and productivity services, and the remaining $65 billion to be spent on online advertising.

As more and more vendors roll out cloud computing services, they are aggressively seeking to define this emerging market on their own terms.

“‘Cloud computing’ — the term I mean — has become a clich now in the tech industry,” Cloudworks CEO Mike Eaton told TechNewsWorld, likening it to “Web 2.0” or “mashups” — terms that are popular but vague.

“[Cloud computing] is still ill-defined, and there are a lot of people out there that want to define it to their own advantage,” he observed.

A Mirage?

This is not to suggest that cloud computing — which for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll define as Web-hosted applications or services — is a mirage built by advertisers and vendors.

Indeed, there are plenty of signs that cloud computing will one day command a share of the software landscape that rivals enterprise-based software.

However, as more vendors enter the space, or repackage old offerings under this new name, an overview of the industry’s taxonomy may be useful, especially to companies new to the space.

Many of the “new” cloud computing offerings are familiar — only the names have changed. The industry has been evolving for the last several years, starting from the early days of ASPs (application service providers), and each generation has improved upon the model.

Cloud computing as it is understood today became possible through the ongoing development and alignment of several existing technologies, Eaton said, such as Software as a Service. Indeed, Salesforce.com, which essentially ushered “SaaS” into the industry lexicon five years ago, has been describing its services as “cloud-based” for the last year.

“This is not new stuff — the term just lends itself so nicely for marketing purposes,” Eaton said.

What It Does

Describing what cloud computing does might be an easier exercise than describing what it is, Dan Carmel, CEO of SpringCM, told TechNewsWorld. “It is accessible via the Web. It is highly customizable and can handle bursts in traffic — in fact that is one of the selling points. It does not require a huge commitment in cost and is often pay-as-you-go. It can target any level of the IT stack in an enterprise.”

Indeed, examining what cloud computing vendors do reveals much more about how the space is evolving than any standard definition does, Google Apps Product Manager Rishi Chandra told TechNewsWorld.

“I see market functionality breaking along one of two paths,” he explained. “Data hosted in the cloud can be delivered through Web applications like Google Apps, where the data is sitting in the cloud and the vendor is giving the user an application to access it as well.”

Or, a cloud computing vendor could build a client Web site almost from scratch, Chandra explained. For instance, a company that wanted to build a video content site would traditionally have to maintain several servers to hold the data within its firewalls. Then, it would have to build an application and process the data. With cloud computing, all the client would have to do would be to upload the required data, and the vendor could manage the rest.

The flexibility of the definition — along with the divergent approaches vendors are taking — explains the complex vendor landscape for cloud computing, he added. Many vendors are entering the space, and each is adopting its own approach to the concept.

Cloud Computing, Part 2: A Who’s Who

Cloud Computing, Part 3: SLA Spirit in the Sky

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