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Mitosis in action: Cloud computing and 'The Cloud'

Much of the confusion behind the question "what is cloud computing" has to do with the diverging concepts of "cloud computing" and "The Cloud"--an unfortunate but understandable evolution of terminology.

Was the failure of Microsoft acquisition Danger to protect the data of Sidekick smart phone users (its core customer base) a failure of cloud computing?

This question was argued vehemently earlier in October when the outage was first reported. Several articles appeared, including some on CNET and ZDNet, that indicated that the Danger failure should give users pause before putting their data into "The Cloud." On the other hand, several of us who have been involved in cloud-computing implementations were appalled at the use of the term "cloud" in regard to Danger. Clearly, as a provider, Danger was not practicing core cloud-computing principles.

Ed Uthman/Flickr

Lori MacVittie, of application delivery networking vendor F5 and one of my favorite bloggers on the effects of the cloud-computing model on application control systems, wrote a post recently that summed up what a lot of us realized as the aftermath of Danger unfolded; that the word "cloud" is now being used in two increasingly divergent senses.

MacVittie puts it so well, I'll let her spell it out for you:

Thanks to the nearly constant misapplication of the phrase "The Cloud" and the lack of agreement on a clear definition from technical quarters I must announce that "The Cloud" is no longer a synonym for "Cloud Computing". It can't be. Do not be misled into trying, it will only cause you heartache and headaches. The two no longer refer to the same thing (if they ever really did) and there should be no implied - or inferred - relationship between them. "The Cloud" has, unfortunately, devolved into little more than a trendy reference for any consumer-facing application delivered over the Internet.

Cloud computing, on the other hand, specifically speaks to an architectural model; a means of deploying applications that abstracts compute, storage, network, and application network resources in order to provide uniform, on-demand scalability and reliability of application delivery.

In other words, "The Cloud" is a consumer concept. It represents a way of looking at the seemingly (but not really) new concept of using commercial Internet applications to create, update, and delete personal and/or professional information. It represents a tactical decision on the part of the consumer to trust third parties with data access, management, and security.

With that in mind, it's no wonder Richard Stallman, Larry Ellison and others are less than wowed by cloud computing. That model is both nothing new, and something everyone needs to understand has consequences to the way valuable data is handled.

On the other hand, "cloud computing" is a systems concept--an operations model that is mainly visible to those who build, deploy, and/or operate applications. End users (or "consumers" as Lori explains above) do not see "cloud computing."

Have there been cloud computing failures? Sure. The denial of service attack on Bitbucket (hosted on Amazon Web Services) was arguably an excellent example. There have been and will be more.

William Vambenepe may have explained a relationship between The Cloud and cloud computing months ago, but in slightly different terms. In a post titled "Exploring 'IT management in a changing IT world,'" Vambenepe describes an interesting way to conceive of the different facts of the term "cloud":

There are two main parts in the "Cloud" buzzword: the "Technical Cloud" and the "Business Cloud". The "Technical Cloud" is where we take virtualization and standardization (of machines, networks and application infrastructure) and turn that mind-boggling complexity into a manageable system that can be programmed to deliver applications (Cisco recently called it "Unified Computing"; HP, IBM and others have been trying to describe and brand it for a long time). Building on these technical capabilities comes the second part of "Cloud", the "Business Cloud". It is the ability to use infrastructure owned by a third party (presumably one able to leverage economies of scale) and all the possibilities this opens in the business realm. That's what "Cloud" started as, back when it was known as "Utility Computing" and before it was applied to everything under the sun. A recent illustration of the relationship between the "Technical Cloud" and the "Business Cloud" is the introduction of vCloud by VMWare (their vision includes using VMotion technology, a piece of the "Technical Cloud", not just to move machines between neighboring hypervisors but between organizations, enabling the "Business Cloud").

In the days since the Danger event, I've found my own ability to interpret where others come from in the "cloud" discussion has been made much easier by understanding this distinction. It's just too bad that the distinction will confuse non-technical people more than help them.