What’s Wrong With Today’s Definitions of “The Cloud”


The Cloud.  The iCloud.  Cloud Computing. Cloud Power. Global Cloud. Local Cloud. Elastic Clouds. Public Cloud. Community Cloud. Hybrid Cloud. The Intercloud. Things can be “In the cloud” and according to Microsoft, you can go “To the cloud.”

Yup, just when we thought the word “cloud” was overused, it became even more overused. It might feel embarrassing, but I think it’s about time somebody asked: What exactly is “The Cloud”?

When encouraging me to ask questions, my dad used to say “it’s better to look stupid for a minute than remain stupid for the rest of your life.”  This is usually excellent advice. However, I have found that asking  “what is The Cloud?” doesn’t usually result in enlightenment.

This is best illustrated by the first thing you find on this topic in Wikipedia:


Considering this is the hottest trend in IT at the moment, this is amazing. So why is it so darn confusing?  In efforts to explain the cloud I have noticed the Goldilocks syndrome. Some explanations are too hot (overly technical) and some are too cold (not technical enough). Finding the one that’s “just right” is easier said than done.

Why are both of these approaches not useful to the average person?

Too Hot:  Over-Technical Explanations

Don’t get me wrong.  Cloud computing is a technical concept, but here’s the thing.  I understand the underlying technology, I have certifications in VMware and Citrix, I use it and I teach it. But even I find many of the explanations of the cloud to be jargon-riddled techno-babble. The Wikipedia article begins: “Cloud computing refers to the logical computational resources (data, software) accessible via a computer network.” Oh, now I get it.

Now, if you already understand cloud computing and you enjoy regaling others with your wealth of technical knowledge on the subject, you may be thinking that I am talking nonsense.  People have to understand the technology because that’s what the cloud is, right?

Not necessarily. To illustrate, think about electricity. We use it every day. We know that we need it to power our devices. We know we will get a shock if we put a fork in a plug. But do how much do we actually understand about it?  There are concepts of subatomic particles, and electromagnetic interactions and electrical potential. Do you need to understand all of this to use it every day? No.

Most of the articles attempting to explain the cloud are not written for a cloud consumer –  they are written as though everyone learning about cloud is studying to be a cloud engineer. So, if you find some explanations of the cloud overwhelming, don’t worry. It’s not you; it’s just that you aren’t getting the explanation that you need…which brings me to the other end of the spectrum.

Too Cold:  Overly Simple Explanations

Realizing that the technical approach is not appropriate for the common consumer, the other trend is this: Don’t attempt to explain it at all. Just throw the word “cloud” into marketing slogans and hope that people will figure it out. Examples of this are Microsoft’s “To the Cloud” or Apple’s “This is the Cloud the way it should be.”

I asked my wife, a very smart business professional, what she thinks the cloud is. “It’s a place on the internet where you can store all your files so you can access them from any device,” she responded.

Yes, Apple did a good job explaining its “iCloud” to Mrs. Gibson. It proves the bigger point: That consumers don’t need to understand the technology, they only need to understand how it benefits them.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that “The Cloud” is not just online storage as defined by Apple. It is not just the ability to collaborate on documents over the internet as defined by Microsoft. It is much, much more than all of that, and that’s what ends up being confusing.

What’s the “Just Right” explanation? What is the actual definition of “The Cloud?” Look for my next blog post in this series where I will answer just that and explore the path to cloud enlightenment.

I will leave you with one last thought. Maybe this quest for enlightenment is coming to an end. Now that Apple have put the letter “i” in front of the word “Cloud,” we might find that people no longer need to understand what it is, they will just use it anyway.

Glenn Gibson

Glenn Gibson

Glenn Gibson is the director of Product Communication at Hyland, creator of OnBase. With 15 years working in the IT industry, he’s collected several certifications over the years as a VMware Certified Professional, Citrix Certified Administrator and Microsoft Certified Professional. As a self-proclaimed “presentation junkie”, he is very passionate about everything that goes along with public speaking, and has picked up a few awards along the way too. A native of Scotland, his passions outside of work include all things Scottish; kilts, bagpipes, whisky, (real) football and is often heard beating a drum or two in his spare time.

5 Responses

  1. Dan Boyd says:

    Thank you! Excellent questions and some very good “set up” for the “just right” explanation of exactly what the “Cloud” thingy is. I can’t wait until you post it!

  2. ken usman-smith says:

    Good points and reflects the confusion over open source and remote hosting that sparked similar debates and stressors that companies have wrestled with over the last few years. Its all about not understanding the question.

    I do not want to foresee the future. I am concerned with taking care of the present. God has given me no control over the moment following. Mohandas Gandhi

    Bottom line is how much ‘control’ does the business want over its infrastructure? Can if accept that remote hosting and the whole taking of the network outside the compaany walls is ‘safe’ and will grow efficiency.
    Working from home still makes some managers feel its a soft option for staff and not really work, so using and benefitting from icloud will be an industry all to itself.
    Of course as with all Control qustions its underpinned by a risk that the keyboard holds,,,CTRL-ALT-DELETE

  3. Paul Molloy says:

    “The Cloud” is what you want it to be. It is a wide-reaching term like “Computing” with many interpretations, and none of those interpretations is any more valid than any other. Pity the poor consumer though because vendors will sell the definition that best suits their own purpose. I believe that very few people are actually making money off cloud services though, and I would personally not store anything vital or extremely confidential on any “Cloud” because the day will come when that service is hacked, or when the provider runs out of money and turns the servers and the WAN switches off and there’s no working phone number for me to call and ask how to retrieve my data.

  4. Glenn Gibson Glenn Gibson says:

    Thanks for your comments, Paul! The aim of my article is exactly what you describe as “the poor consumer”. I would equally describe my target audience as intelligent business people who are trying to actually understand what “The Cloud” means to them and find themselves caught up in the marketing slogans or drowned in overly technical explanations.

    You also bring up two interesting thoughts on the cloud which could, if unanswered, destabilize the long term viability what is becoming known as “the cloud”;

    1. Whether people (vendors or consumers) make money from it.
    2. The security implications storing of anything “vital” or “confidential” in the cloud.

    This has interesting consequences for ECM in “The Cloud”. In the series of blog posts to follow, once we have helped navigate the readers to a reasonable understanding of what the cloud actually means to them, we will tackle these points you raised individually and give them the attention they deserve.

    I would like to briefly address one of your comments however – wherever you have sensitive data, you are correct in that you absolutely need to be concerned about the security of it, whether it is on a piece of paper in a filing cabinet, in electronic form stored on a file server or stored in “The Cloud”. However, one is no more or less inherently secure than another, they just have different concerns which must be addressed. Many Cloud vendors actually provide significantly stronger security controls and expertise than what is typically found in today’s corporate datacenters. The concerns you note are perfectly valid and must be understood and addressed. In a future post I will discuss the reasons why prudent “Cloud” consumers can store their data with confidence.

  5. Mike Connors says:

    Great post Glenn! I’m not going to comment on what the cloud is – but I will share a humorous quip I used to enjoy sharing with my customers and prospects. Not about “what” the cloud is … but rather “where” it is.

    Being first to market with a Hosted VoIP play in central NY back in 2006 when people in our community were hearing the word, but didn’t yet understand anything about it – When explaining the whole “cloud” thing to interested prospects – I became fond of telling people “The Cloud is located on the 9th floor of the State Tower Building”. It worked well.

    I guess it’s good to know where a thing is too.

    Thanks for the information!


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