DEFINING THE CLOUD: The success of cloud computing as a marketing term has led technology companies to redefine and expand the definition to include most of what they already offer. Image: IMAGE COURTESY OF TRIVIAKING, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Is "cloud computing" enabling the next generation of information accessibility or simply a marketing campaign devised by technology companies to peddle more of what they are already selling? The answer lies somewhere between those extremes. Much of what makes cloud computing tick—the Internet, mobile computers, networked data storage, software housed in data centers and delivered over the Web, et cetera—has been available since the beginning of the dot-com era more than a decade ago. What is new, or at least more recent, is the greater variety of content that can be delivered online to a wider variety of gadgets.
What is cloud computing? Anyone who has watched a Netflix movie on a computer or smartphone or through a Nintendo Wii has used "the cloud." The same is true of anyone who has ever used Flickr or Dropbox to share photos, documents or videos. In the strictest sense, "the cloud" is a pool of information and services delivered via a public network. (Sounds a bit like the Internet actually.) Other definitions stipulate that the devices accessing this information have very little storage capacity and not much software, other than a Web browser and operating system.
The success of cloud computing as a marketing term has led technology companies to redefine and expand the definition to include most of what they already offer. Instead of a single cloud, companies such as Amazon.com, Google, HP, IBM and Microsoft sell services that enable customers to create their own private clouds walled off from the public. In this type of scenario, a "cloud" becomes synonymous with a "network" or possibly even an "intranet," which provides access to people with a password. Further confusing matters are services such as Apple iTunes, which require special software to be installed on a computer or smartphone in order to access music, movies and other content stored online.
Even Silicon Valley luminaries like Larry Ellison, CEO of software maker Oracle, have loudly criticized cloud computing as hype. Ellison pointed out in 2009 that "all it is is a computer attached to a network." (video) Ellison that same year also pointed out that "the computer industry is the only industry that's more fashion-driven than women's fashion." (video) Of course, this did not stop Oracle from later rolling out and marketing its own cloud computing offerings.
Regardless of how cloud computing is defined (and redefined), what makes it tick is access to scalable amounts of computing power, storage, networking bandwidth and other resources, unbeknownst to the person, say, using an iPhone to catch up on the latest TV programs via Hulu. In the past, the ability to requisition more or less data center resources as needed was called on-demand computing, utility computing or software as a service. Today, it is cloud computing, although the emphasis is still on economically managing the resources required to keep a network up and running.
Foot in the door
The availability of cloud services has been a boon to startup companies, which typically do not have a lot of money to spend on servers, storage devices or the people to manage these systems. Amazon.com, which made its name as an online marketplace, has offered pieces of its data centers to other businesses (many of them startups) since 2006, when the company set up Amazon Web Services LLC (AWS). Netflix has since moved a large amount of internal infrastructure to AWS including key applications like its movie recommendations system, video transcoding, customer analytics and title selection queue, says Deepak Singh, an AWS senior business development manager.