Why the phrase “in the cloud” should die

Now that I’ve gotten your attention:

A picture of what we're talking about
A picture of what we’re talking about

You’ve all heard the latest fetish in marketing speak:

“Our entire application is in the cloud, so that’s pretty cool. Want to work here?”

Your response should probably include “Can you elaborate? Explain what you’re talking about?” This is not my first foray into complaining about marketing. I will admit that the title was simply to be controversial and not correct, so let me elaborate.

The word has lost its meaning. Why? The concepts associated with cloud computing are relatively simple: do some sort of processing or storage off of an end user machine. We all remember when our middle school thought Citrix was a cool idea — you can run applications on a different server and display them locally. VNC? Also a cloud. What is a cloud and where should we draw the line?

The best comparison I can make: Microsoft Word 2010 would be a locally run application with some internet enabled functionality like clipart and thesaurus lookups. Google Drive Docs would, conversely, be considered a cloud based application because it runs in a web browser, utilizes APIs for most functionality, and stores all content remotely.

For this usage, the phrase “cloud based document editor” fits nicely and clearly illustrates what difference lies between Word and Docs. Furthermore, Google has taken advantage of the benefits of collaborative editing, comment threads, and email notifications to emphasize the benefits of their editor over a more feature rich local application (besides being entirely free*).

However, the word has been bastardized to try and fit more and more unworthy businesses…furthermore there is a great amount of confusion as to what this term actually means. For example, just because your car dealership has an internet connection and visits websites and maybe even has its own website (or has its own WordPress blog set up by a local high school student) DOES NOT MEAN that your business “lives in the cloud.” This is the classic example of term theft.

Admittedly there is some ambiguity here because:

  • Cloud applications run in a web browser
  • People like buzz words
  • Websites also run in web browsers

Whereas previously I may have had a web site, I may suddenly have a “cloud application.” I saw that I could call my website something else and incorporate a buzz word even though that term doesn’t totally fit. Cloud computing does include “that which is processed on a different computer” but for some reason we didn’t feel the need to call PHP based websites “cloud applications” for the first fifteen years of its existance. Is that a problem? I simply argue that this bastardization means the word has lost its significance and meaning.

Is a virtual machine a cloud? I think that Amazon’s use of the word to describe an “Elastic Cloud Computing” environment is fair. But VirtualBox alone probably doesn’t deserve the phrase.

EC2 Handy Chart
EC2 Handy Chart

Because the term has been applied so broadly, it doesn’t really mean anything without context. It has become a marketer’s word, to be taken with a grain of salt. Most importantly, you sound like a fool when you use it and try to sound intelligent.

The fix? The term “cloud web application” should require an offline capable application in browser using some sort of RESTful API. Cloud computing should require something in addition to a hypervisor. There should be some validation of this term’s use if it is not to become useless, much like WiFi or USB certification.

*Google sells your soul to advertisers for several billion dollars

Sam Purcell contributed to the content and sass in this article.

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