Ah. The Cloud. It’s everywhere these days. You can’t move for seeing Cloud-this, or Cloud-powered that, and the phrase ‘cloud computing’ appears over 48 million times on the internet1. But as a word, where does it stop being a useful description and start being a meaningless buzzword?

First, a history lesson

Back in the days when people still bothered giving the internet a capital letter2, business computing was a series of people with thick glasses and even thicker beards tinkering with machines that took up entire floors and had less processing power than a broken Speak and Spell. It was a world of mainframes, terminals, and dedicated or at least circuit-switched connections. Then the 80s happened and gradually everyone got their own machine to do their own work, making mainframes look a little old hat. By the time the 90s rolled round everyone had Intel PCs, locally-installed software and some sort of internet connection. On a network diagram, the internet would be represented by a cloud symbol, as it represented a number of individual services, lines, connections, protocols et al. The intricacies of these various connections didn’t matter at all to the end user; they were just happy to finally have broadband, even if it was 128k. A cloud symbol made sense.

As online services took off and the (in)famous dotcom bubble grew and burst, resources were commonly said to be being delivered through the cloud. In 2006 Amazon unleashed its Elastic Compute Cloud unto the world and Google’s Eric Schmidt used the term at an industry conference. Though the term may have been strictly born in 1994, it was in 2006 that it caught in the collective consciousness.

Under a Cloud

Being a new and shiny word to describe new and shiny things, it’s hardly surprising that it caught on everywhere, (with Apple iNevitably grabbing ‘iCloud’). Because of its popularity, cloud has become a bandwagon that the whole online world has jumped on to some degree or another and the meaning of cloud has stretched to encompass anything touching the internet. Are you streaming music? That’s now a Cloud Player. Are you simply storing your files online? That’s definitely Cloud Storage. Disk supremoes Western Digital call a hard drive a cloud even when it’s plugged directly into your computer and acts as a sort-of NAS.

Today we’re mostly desensitised to it, but do you remember when you first started hearing the word being applied to all and sundry? Didn’t it sound odd? To me, it still does.

Back to the future

IaaS, PaaS and SaaS are clearly defined, as are the main sub-types of IaaS cloud: private, public and hybrid. These terms are, for the most part at least, clearly understood across the board and still serve as useful, accurate descriptors. If I were to mention PaaS or a Hybrid Cloud to most of the readers of this blog, they’d know what I mean.

Ironically enough, with the rise of Virtual Desktops (Desktop as a Service) and SaaS, we’re not a million miles from the olden days of mainframes and dumb terminals. Only now they’re called cloud servers and thin clients. Of course, these days it goes much further, and you can quite happily access a Windows desktop on an iPhone whilst on the train home and think nothing of it, such is the wonder of modern technology.

A Pain in the aaS

You might also have noticed that everything is being delivered ‘as a Service’. Have you heard of DaPaSS? Workspace as a Service? Cognition as a Service? Or the beautifully misguided term: Server as a Service? Nor had I.

Where’s it going to end? If I pay my car tax online through the gov.uk portal, is that Tax as a Service? When the much-touted Internet of Things (IoT) eventually bothers to happen, I might text my fridge to order me some more cheese and that good butter I like: Dairy as a Service? I bet it won’t be long before we see the absurdly recursive Cloud as a Service.

As for the other buzzwords that are rife in our industry, like “utilise” rather than “use”, everyone from business managers to journalists ‘reaching out’ to people, software or programs being called ‘apps’ to make them sound trendy, everything being a ‘solution’, and mandatory being quite incorrectly pronounced man-DATE-ory… well, don’t get me started.

1 Fun fact: Dell tried to patent the term ‘cloud computing’ back in 2008. Unsurprisingly, they failed.

2 Yes yes, I’m well aware of the technical debate surrounding this. But since few people outside of technical disciplines use the internet (with a lowercase i), I’m an advocate for language evolution (it’s always been one of the English language’s great advantages – but that’s a blog for another time).

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