But is that really cloud computing?

Conclusions from recent reader poll

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Some have accused me of being a cloud computing sceptic, and it’s true that I have not been one for pulling punches in some of my previous articles on the topic (see here, here, here and here, for example).

Let’s be absolutely clear, though - my criticisms have largely been around the language and messaging used by vendors, service providers and evangelists rather than anything to do with tangible substance. The issue I have is that when you put all the hype, assumptions and conflicting ideas together, the end result is market confusion.

And to me this is doubly frustrating because some great developments around hosted services and dynamic IT infrastructure that had hitherto been making good headway in terms of market acceptance have been undermined by association with the cloud label, which to many means ‘new and unproven’. Ironically, therefore, the over-enthusiastic marketing has probably set mainstream acceptance back in some areas.

When raising this problem with those putting out their various cloud messages, the typical reaction has been to look at me as if I am missing something really obvious. Indeed I’m sure that some have regarded me as a bit of a Neanderthal for not ‘getting’ their particular flavour of cloud goodness and not buying into their ‘game changing’ rhetoric.

So, to illustrate the problem in very tangible terms, I did a quick web search, dug out some of my notes from supplier briefings, and compiled a list of different types of offering that have at one time or another been held up as an example of cloud computing in action. I then used this list as the basis for an online survey and turned to one of the most grounded communities I know – Reg readers – to tell me which items they regarded as being legitimate examples of cloud.

Just over 400 responses were received and the results pretty much speak for themselves. When it comes to hosted infrastructure, for example, some of the most common and important services in the market today are generally not accepted as being examples of cloud:

Click to enlarge

The two gold stars on this chart indicate where more than 50 per cent of respondents acknowledged the cloud credentials of the service concerned, and it is telling that there only two of these. If we look more closely, these are the ones that are concerned with highly flexible on-demand services that are faithful to the pay-as-you-go with no ongoing obligation commercial model. As soon as any aspect of the service is fixed, either in terms of physical resources allocated or through commitment to some kind of minimum contract or spend, then most say we have moved away from the cloud computing concept.

These same principles of physical and commercial flexibility are applied when judging services higher up the stack around things like email and business applications:

Click to enlarge

Again we see the flexibility angle coming through, extended to include the idea of multi-tenancy when it comes to application services.

What’s interesting about this one is that some services we see heavily promoted as cloud – web mail, hosted Microsoft Exchange, even the core contract-based Salesforce.com proposition – are frequently not regarded as legitimate examples of cloud computing if all the marketing is put to one side and they are described in a more dispassionate manner. The main thing again, however, is the variability and inconsistency of views, which reflects the level of confusion out there.

The picture we see also underlines how wary we need to be of generalised and unqualified statements about cloud computing, eg when people talk about uptake, potential, forecasts, practicalities and so on, what exactly are they referring to? It’s this kind of imprecision and ambiguity that makes it such hard work to figure out the meaning and relevance (or otherwise) of that next cloud computing press release or PowerPoint pitch.

More to the point in practical day to day terms, all of the hype and ambiguity is currently adding overhead to interactions between suppliers and customers in the IT and communications space. Everyone needs to spend time and effort wading through unhelpful marketing and positioning, which adds to the cost of sale for vendors and service providers, and makes it harder for IT and business professionals to work out what’s valuable and relevant. I wonder how many people on the buying side of the equation, for example, have missed opportunities because they had already rejected one form of cloud, and failed to appreciate the potential of another because it carried the same label.

Furthermore, I also wonder whether more traditional contract-based hosted services, which are well-proven and continue to represent huge value in many business scenarios, are being undermined by the misguided industry obsession with everything having to be ‘elastic’. This doesn’t make any sense when you analyse requirements and look at parallels from other industries such as telecommunications (where contracts are still very relevant, despite the pay-as-you-go alternative).

Coming back to our little survey, beyond what’s on the above charts, there were a number of other areas explored, including hosted communications services and on premise offerings (for building so called ‘private clouds’), and the picture for these was equally inconsistent. In fact, the whole notion of the term 'cloud computing' being associated with enabling technology as opposed to online services was generally rejected.

If you are interested a seeing the other results, and reading the Freeform Dynamics view of what they mean for buyers and sellers of services and solutions, we have put together a short research note which you are welcome to download from here.

I am tempted to sign off by saying that on the core question of whether the industry is confusing the hell out everyone on this whole cloud computing thing, I rest my case. But this isn’t about scoring points, it is about commercial clarity and efficiency of dealings in the market place.

So my question to all of the marketing and PR professionals out there in the supplier community is: when was the last time you asked your front line sales guys and resellers whether dressing everything up as cloud has actually made their job easier or helped them meet their targets? And do your customers believe they are getting more value now because you have called something cloud, than before you went through your rebranding exercise?

I would be genuinely interested in the views of sales and marketing people on this, so check out that research note and ping me with your feedback if you have any thoughts. All other views are most welcome too. ®

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