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Cloud Computing, a Foggy Concept

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With so much talk about “cloud computing,” it’s easy to feel lost in the clouds. If you either don’t understand the term, or don’t see a reason for it, you’re in good company.

Much confusion and strong dislike for the phrase has brought together some strange bedfellows.

Take Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for one. During his recent Churchill Club appearance, Ballmer dismissed the uniqueness of the concept by saying, “When people talk about cloud computing, they’re talking just about taking some stuff, putting it outside the firewall, and perhaps putting it on servers that are also shared or storage systems.”

Oracle’s always-quotable CEO Larry Ellison went one better, according the Wall Street Journal. Ellison declared during a recent analyst conference, “The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women’s fashion. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It’s complete gibberish. It’s insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?”

According to Gartner, you can blame hardware and software vendors for the confusion — and the apparent outrage it’s spawning. David Smith, a vice president and research fellow at the analyst firm, said he agreed that “cloud computing” represents another take on well-worn concepts, brought about as vendors slap the latest buzzword on their products if they think it will help them sell.

But Ballmer and Ellison aren’t alone in blasting the trend — with growing dissatisfaction over “cloud computing” bringing none other than Free Software Foundation guru Richard Stallman into the fray.

While wary of the term, Stallman — not surprisingly, given his long history of advocating for free software — took a different approach than did either of the CEOs. During an interview with the U.K. Guardian, Stallman singled out Google’s Gmail in particular for criticism, saying it was a trap aimed at forcing more people to buy into locked, proprietary systems that would cost them more and more over time.

“It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign,” he said.

Blame the vendors?

Gartner’s Smith said he understands that Ballmer and Ellison blasted the concept in part to defend their turf against competing software models. But they also were reacting to the confusion caused by overuse of the term.

“The only people who aren’t confused ‘by the term’ are the ones with a myopic view of it, where they look at one little thing and say everyone else is wrong,” Smith told “There is a fair amount of honest confusion ‘and’ a fair amount of vendors confusing people. Not on purpose, just trying to paint what they are offering with the latest buzzword du jour.”

Indeed, “cloud computing” is appearing on products and services far and wide. Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) tried to trademark the term, which it used for its servers, but was denied by the Patent and Trademark Office.

Evidently, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Oracle aren’t themselves completely immune. Ballmer, now in London for the Cloud Computing Expo, announced Microsoft has a new Windows platform in the works, Windows Cloud. The offering is designed to support cloud-based applications. IDG News Service, which carried the report, said more details of Windows Cloud would come out during Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference at the end of this month.

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Meanwhile, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) unveiled its latest cloud service, allowing customers to run Windows Server and SQL Server database on its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service.

Just last week, Amazon and Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) jointly showed off Oracle software that would be run on EC2, as well.

And those developments are part of the problem, Smith said.

“Part of it is the rush to paint everything you have as a ‘cloud,’ because it’s the new buzzword,” he said. “It’s the thing vendors feel they need to sell stuff, and in some places, IT people feel they need to put it on their project to get funding for what they want to do.”

Mixing the discussion of “cloud-enabling technologies” with “cloud computing services” creates even more confusion, he added. How can a Dell server and’s CRM both fall under the umbrella of “cloud computing?” The answer is that they shouldn’t.

Instead, Smith suggested the two should be separated as services and enabling technologies, or to use terms that might already be passé: hardware and software.

More importantly, he suggested buyers forget the buzzwords altogether, and ask themselves, “What do you want?”

“It’s the same advice we gave on things like client/server, e-business and ‘service-oriented architecture’. It’s the same old thing in a lot of ways, and the same old abuse of the latest buzzword,” Smith added. “In this case, I think ‘cloud computing’ does fall fairly neatly into these two major perspectives ‘hardware and software’. You can start to get a handle on it if you understand that.”

This article was originally published on

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