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Cloud computing's dual identity

As a term, it has increasingly come to be a rallying point for where computing is headed.

Last week's virtual version of the roaming CloudCamp conference was a good opportunity to check the pulse of cloud computing's evolution.

It struck me that we continue to see two very different groups of attendees at events such as this.

One is the "clouderati," the vendors involved with cloud computing in some form or another, and sophisticated users who grok cloud computing and its implications for their organization. This crowd is so past definitional debates and analogies to the electrical grid. They just want to get on with specific issues--such as dealing with audit requirements in a world where you increasingly can't just walk into a datacenter and point to the physical server where an application is running.

The other group is still a bit fuzzy on the general concept. Does cloud computing just mean Amazon Web Services? Where does software as a service fit? Is it just a load of hype? Is it safe?

It's not hard to understand why there is a fair bit of confusion. Cloud computing has become a sort of blanket term for where computing is going. Think of it as a synonym for "computing.next." It represents a shift to an operational model in which applications don't live out their lives on a specific piece of hardware and in which resources are more flexibly deployed than was the historical norm.

Cloud computing is therefore not a single technology or even a single approach but rather a collection of technologies and approaches that collectively represent the direction that computing is headed. I see nothing wrong with this. Many of the benefits espoused for these new approaches to computing are genuine. To the degree that "cloud computing" offers a convenient rallying point to get users headed there, that seems for the good.

But specific things are easier to grapple with than general paradigms. And cloud computing started life as something fairly narrow as articulated in author Nick Carr's The Big Switch. (The irony is that, not only is the cloud computing concept bigger than the Big Switch concept of a few, huge mega-service providers, it now seems unlikely that the degree of centralization and fundamental change in economic model envisioned by Carr will happen any time soon.) Whereas today, we see cloud computing used sometimes to mean computing.next and sometimes to mean a specific technology approach that someone is either promoting or denigrating.

Cloud computing incorporates and makes use of many individual sharply-defined techs of course. But, increasingly, think of the broad term as applying to a way of thinking about computing rather than the specifics of how it's done.