“Cloud” is more than just a word

For the majority of users, any mention of the cloud yields questions like; what is it, what does it do and what can it do? While many possess a basic knowledge of what the cloud actually is, sharing that same understanding between anyone is a rarer occurrence and as a result, makes the whole concept of the cloud extremely confusing.

End users are being hindered by the fact one provider defines the cloud as something entirely different from the next.

This lack of clarity is undeniably a pressing concern, but can it be easily overcome?

Worryingly the evidence suggests not. Like any broad computing term, the cloud will struggle to reach a definitive form. This is due to the fact it’s a constantly shifting entity that will continue to evolve as new technologies, platforms and delivery methods become available. Obviously for those looking for concrete return on investment, this can be problematic.

Surprisingly what many commentators do agree on is what limitations exist within the cloud. They are quick to dismiss it without explaining which cloud they are referring to. Of course vigilance is necessary with any new IT system, but is it really as fear-inducing as many make it out to be? The cloud is more than just a word and without addressing this, it is futile to look at the cloud’s strengths or weaknesses.

Furthermore once the term cloud is used, other benchmarks are suddenly relevant. Concepts like the tier rating of a provider’s data centre and data encryption are necessary for gauging the quality of a cloud service. However, they also risk a further weakening of the cloud’s message in the attempt to justify the term.

Wowed by the Cloud

So, where to begin? Let’s agree that the cloud has been around for a while – that much is known. Whether or not it was called the cloud, the platforms that drive on-demand IT have existed for some time. With that in place, what is the cloud capable of?

Virtualisation is the most obvious example. Having the ability to move services away from the constriction of local infrastructure is a powerful option. The result, transformation of IT into an agile and flexible business driver, can help an enterprise approach its strategic aim with greater effect.

Cloud services need to quickly react to IT requirements. The biggest advantage of the cloud is therefore that it offers smaller companies access to much larger computing power that previously wouldn’t have been possible.

Of course, these are the theoretical aims of the cloud. In reality, nothing is ever that simple, but before the cloud horror stories are recounted, let us look at the real major issue facing the cloud. It is the term itself.

It is currently a term that is open to interpretation. When we mention the cloud, are we referring to secure and stable online backup within the cloud? Or rather, is it a case of hosted cloud infrastructure? How about the average internet user – the cloud to them could mean photography storage and consumer webmail.

The term is prevalent in all levels of IT and as a result has become a ubiquitous term made more confusing by marketing departments who each bring their own interpretation of the term “cloud”.

Has its overuse and marketing exposure already made it defunct? Is it just noise, a way of explaining the ‘new internet’ service models? Is it even something that’s genuinely new anymore?

Depending on the perspective we look from, yes and no. The cloud is an oversaturated term, but one that can still have associations that are relevant to businesses. Fractured meaning shouldn’t dilute its message of agile IT services without the need for large capital outlay – it is just convincing end users that this is the specific cloud you are talking about.

However by using a term like the cloud, it forces users into interpreting the service in a context that is relevant to them, regardless of what the provider wants to draw the attention of the user to. To a responsible provider, the cloud conjures images of safety, security and flexibility, but to a user with a fearful view the mere mention can mean a loss of control and intermittent service, and therefore affect their willingness for adoption.

If a user only looks at the cloud from an “if it’s in the cloud, then it’s safe” perspective, then that’s what the cloud will mean to them. If a broader outlook exists, the term will cause the user to address a wider range of parameters.

Put simply, buzzwords like the cloud are presented in place of actual value – defining a service by tagging the cloud onto it is unwise because it dilutes the meaning. In an ideal world, using the cloud as a descriptive term should provide a clear explanation. Obviously the reality we are seeing is the opposite.

S.M.A.R.T. Clouds

Subjectivity aside, the best way to overcome this barrier is to approach the cloud within the concept of S.M.A.R.T. Objectives. These are:

1. Specific – any objectives should specify what they want to achieve

2. Measureable – you should be able to measure whether you’re meeting an objective or not

3. Achievable – are the objectives set attainable and achievable

4. Realistic – can you realistically achieve the objectives with the resources you have

5. Time – when does the objective have to be achieved by

So, when looking at cloud services, are expectations on what the cloud can deliver realistic and well defined? Is it possible to measure the service through Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and technological criteria? Is the cloud service just an empty promise or is it actually achievable? Do the resources within the cloud exist to support a business – is it quick and timely, one of the cloud’s main selling points?

The cloud has to be a win-win situation for all those involved. It needs to be workable and productive for the client whilst being profitable for the supplier.

When analysing cloud services a business should think about what its desired result will be in moving to the cloud. It must look at what the parameters of service and supply are, as well as the additional resources that are needed to deliver the cloud service both internally and externally. Finally it must be able to measure the cloud’s performance and deal with the consequences, good or bad, that occur.

Clouded Interpretation

Inhabiting the same level of understanding will allow the cloud to become valuable to businesses. The cloud will continue to confuse when there’s a mismatch of definitions. It’s almost a catch 22 situation for a cloud provider – you can’t offer cloud services without using the term cloud. It simultaneously provides a definition and problem.

Ideally the cloud will follow the same lines as the word Internet. The Internet has become something that everyone associates with – a common, communal definition that means the same thing to the corporate level IT director as the average consumer. It used to be a broad, unfathomable term but eventually defined itself – the cloud needs to follow the same route.

It’s hard to come to a conclusion – the cloud is continuing to evolve and like all generalisations, (take ‘computers’ as an example), will never stop changing. As the cloud has been hijacked by so many different industries, there are now so many levels to the cloud that a simple marketing term doesn’t have the power to define them all

What is important is that users of the cloud make sure they are responsible in getting every benefit of the cloud. Providers are obviously responsible for the service they offer, but users of the cloud must ensure they are working with their providers to get the best service. Ensuring that existing infrastructure and bandwidth is available to support cloud computing is also a consideration, as is picking providers carefully and not being taken in by empty promises.

The crucial point of the argument is that it’s not that your business is partaking in the cloud, but rather the platform. Being honest with what your business wants from the cloud will then denote the amount of IT satisfaction you receive.

David Ebsworth is CTO of Oncore IT. David has worked within the IT industry for 25 years and for the past 10, at director level. He has worked at a strategic level in key areas such as infrastructure architecture and deployment, virtualisation and in particular business continuity, disaster recovery, online backup and data recovery.