Defining The Cloud

When Steve Jobs announced their “some cloud stuff” there was excitement. Steve Jobs announcing a product means people will soon be defining everything against Apple as a benchmark. The new buzz word in the IT world is cloud (and social too) but no one has defined what cloud computing is. Hotmail, Gmail, Exchange are all part of cloud computing spoken in a broader sense, so why is everyone so excited about it these days? I tweeted a while back that by putting “cloud” in iCloud, Apple will confuse a lot of people and Jobs’ RDF would lead to Apple getting undue credit for being a competitor in this new “cloud computing” era.

Is iCloud cloud computing? Unfortunately, no. It is a subset. Cloud computing is much more than what iCloud is. iCloud essentially is a sync service for music, documents, email*, calendar, apps, ebooks and photos. iCloud ensures you have access to your data across your devices. Google’s Chrome offers similar sync capabilities as part of Chrome browser, Chrome OS, Google Music, Android. And Microsoft has Live Mesh. This syncing of data across devices is a subset of cloud computing and I call this the personal cloud.

Then there are products like Windows Azure, Google AppEngine, Amazon AWS, VMware, Dell Cloud Computing etc. These are cloud computing platforms and what have everyone excited. It is these products that have made cloud the buzz word these days. Azure, AWS, VMware, AppEngine perform computing in the real sense on servers that reside somewhere else and not on the developers computers. Apps run on servers from Microsoft (Azure), Amazon (AWS), Google (AppEngine). These offerings are primarily targeted towards the enterprise, let’s call this the Enterprise cloud.

Now here’s where things get interesting, employees in an enterprise are consumers, they use the consumer cloud too but the Enterprise cloud offers a lot more than just syncing data across devices.

Broadly, I’d say the cloud serves two purposes:

  • Sync data – primarily for the personal environment (personal at home & work)
  • Computes digits – primarily for the enterprise

As explained above, an example of cloud computing is Windows Azure – you can store data, you run code all on servers that are not yours. Azure is a technical product, it runs SQL, acts as a CDN, stores your data, can deploy virtual machines. iCloud does none of these. In fact there are reports that Apple uses Windows Azure and Amazon for its iCloud offering. That should be signal enough that iCloud doesn’t compete with either of those. Enterprise cloud is about Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service.

There are communication services such as Skype, Lync, Email and Messengers, these are over the cloud, don’t compute, aren’t exactly sync services. These are used by consumers in the enterprise environment and their personal lives alike. Where do these fit into cloud computing? I say these are services built to be used over a cloud computing platform.

John Gruber makes a valid observation when he says is a web-based client to gmail while on iOS, the Mail app is your client. Email is a communication service offered as part of one’s personal cloud (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail) or as part of one’s Enterprise cloud (Exchange Mail). Access to your mail on your devices (desktop+mobile) or through a web browser is more of a sync capability across these interfaces.

Cloud computing has been around since we’ve had the Internet. Apple using cloud in iCloud spins the whole cloud computing wave in a way that’s a fallacy. Unfortunate to say the least since now sync capabilities across devices will be considered as being true cloud computing undermining revolutionary offerings such as Azure, AWS, AppEngine.

To summarize:

  • Cloud has been around since we’ve had Internet
  • Cloud now has two purposes:
    • Sync data across one’s devices – Personal Cloud
    • Compute digits – Enterprise cloud

Email, VoIP (Skype), Messengers, iCloud are all products and services built over the personal cloud and enterprise cloud computing platforms.