April 2009
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The Cloud – A Crock of Shit

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore.
That long black cloud is comin’ down
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

It’s happened. Oracle have bought SUN. Some people are wondering if it was a Cloud-Play and cite Larry’s well-reported outburst against the cloud. For those that haven’t seen it, he says:
The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we’ve redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. I can’t think of anything that isn’t cloud computing with all of these announcements. 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?
Well, I’m with Larry on this one. I think the Cloud is a crock of shit. I understand all the words people are using, but I don’t understand what’s new here. I’m even a member of the LinkedIn Cloud Networking Group ’cause all the cool kids are there. But I don’t get it. Maybe Wikipedia, the infallible source of all knowledge, will clarify things. Here’s their picture:
Okay, I see. It all makes sense now.

Okay, I see. It all makes sense now.

Right, that settles it. Let’s dig a bit deeper. Which services and applications currently live in the Cloud (again, from Wikipedia, which is really a good a place as any for this):

  • SaaS Applications such as Google Apps, Salesforce – they’re in monster data centers.
  • Hosted Social Networking Platforms, such as FaceBook – okay, another monster data center.
  • Storage, such as Amazon S3 or Mobile me – more big data centers.
  • Operating systems, such as Azure – Okay, so we can host our OS in monster data centers too and access it remotely. Hold on. Are we just going back to the dumb terminal/thin client model? Did we have The Cloud many moons ago and let it slip when we installed big fat operating systems on our home computers?

At least we’re seeing a pattern here. Excellent, we can make a definition – The cloud consists of big data centers with virtualisation. But these also allegedy live in the cloud:

  • Peer-to-peer applcations, such as Skype or BitTorrent – now these are the opposite. Not centralised at all. In this case, we’re The Cloud.
  • Open services such as OpenID – this is allegedly a “Cloud Service”. It’s distributed too. I can pick my provider.
  • Proprietory services such as Google Maps or PayPal – again, “Cloud Services”. Sounds like a Cloud Service is anything that is accessed directly from a client’s browser as part of a mash-up. Server-to-server communication isn’t sexy enough for The Cloud.
  • Google Analytics / Omniture / WebTrends – Yep, they must be Analytics in The Cloud. Client side JavaScript integration. Tick.
  • What about Social Community in the Cloud, for example from Pluck ? JavaScript integration. Tick. But wait. Each Pluck client has their own hardware. It isn’t shared at all. Sorry, Pluck. You ain’t got no Cloud. Just racks and racks of tin.

Shock! Horror! It’s starting to sound like The Cloud is just another word for The Internet. You’ll be glad to know that many others are as confused as Larry and me. Richard Stallman , founder of the Free Software Foundation doesn’t get it. And Joel on Software, who rocks, doesn’t get it either. Get this, even the Cloud Computing Journal (CCJ) says it is all hype and agrees with Larry. They say:

The current fad of butchering the term “Cloud Computing” to bring sexy back to the *aaS (anything as a service) model is embarrassing. More embarrassing is the fact that I agree with Larry Ellison …

As Kas jokingly said to me on Twitter: You have to have a constant flow of new buzzwords in this business. Otherwise analysts can’t write”XYZ IsDead” articles 2 yrs later. Well I don’t want hype and buzzwords. I want standards. Maybe any protocol or standard with an HTTP binding is a Cloud Protocol? Wikipedia’s list of “Cloud Standards” is a joke at the time of writing. A mix of existing web standards and, well, nonsense: HTTP, XMPP, SSL, Atom, AJAX (what!?!), HTML 5, LAMP (somebody shoot me), XML, JSON, WebServices/REST (like they’re the same thing). What a mess that is. Maybe, just maybe, CMIS is going to give us Content In The Cloud.

Get it yet?

Get it yet?

You may ask yourself, is anyone working on Cloud Computing standards? The same CCJ article states that:

C’mon, people. Don’t give into the generalist hype. Cloud computing is real. “THE Cloud?” Not so much.

Now I hear what he is saying, and there is some real work going on behind the scenes, but I don’t get what Cloud Computing really is either. The recent Open Cloud Manifesto seems very vague to me. It is by its own admission “meant to begin the conversation, not define it.” But what is the conversation it is meant to be starting? The Open Cloud Consortium is trying to do something but their website doesn’t explain much to me. They even have a testbed, but I don’t know what they’re testing. The Unified Cloud Interface Project is real and seems to be trying to merge Cloud Computing with the Semantic Web. I haven’t grokked this yet but it seems to me that if the Semantic Web standards (RDF/OWL/SPARQL) are losing out in the real world to Microformats , it’s going to be a while before any standards come out of this. There are many other expert groups that are putting their heads together and telling us that Cloud Computing is in its infancy and needs standards. But I’ve yet to find the detail outlining exactly what we’re trying to standardise. Whatever it is must be a pretty touchy subject, though, as different groups are already falling out with one another and refusing to endorse things.

It’s all too much for little old me. Doesn’t seem like The Cloud is going to help me much in the short term at all. So, what am I going to do about it? Absolutely nothing. I’m going to sit back and ignore The Cloud until some draft specifications start to emerge. Then I’m going to read them, fail to understand them, but understand what I’m failing to understand. And that’ll be a step in the right direction.

In this country, you gotta make the buzzwords first. Then when you get the buzzwords, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.

UPDATE 24 April: Since posting this, some helpful experts have helped me enormously by helping to separate the wheat from the crap. The useful stuff is hard to find, so read the comments below. And follow @stevecla and @jamesurquhart on Twitter.

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71 comments to The Cloud – A Crock of Shit

  • Whoah – mega rant Jon – impressive!

    Back in those ancient Web 1.0 days (or possibly Web 0.5) any techie meeting I ever sat in had ‘The Internet’ represented by and described as ‘The Cloud’ and as you so rightly say the hype has blown out of all proportion.

    When I was working in the hosted services industry a few years back I got similarly disillusioned with the hype around ‘SaaS’ as I couldn’t really see that much difference between what was being described as SaaS and the Application Service Provider model back in the late 90s – other than the more widespread availability of higher bandwidth and therefore a greater uptake.

    Did wonder whether the following has some relevance here in IBM’s recent moves to agree some standards and also its view on what sits in The Cloud … http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/ibm_blue_spruce_first_look.php

    And as for your last paragraph – I’ve finally discovered what it is I’ve been doing wrong all these years ;)

    • I’m looking forward to getting a new version of Visio so that, when I use the picture of the cloud, it actually has the text “The Cloud” instead of the dated phrase “The Internet”.

      I had the same feelings about SaaS over ASP. Although I had the same feelings about AJAX as we’d all been doing asynchronous JavaScript calls to get XML before the catchy name came along. It is true that naming a technology and generating a bit of hype around it can actually drive the standards and toolkits. But as we know, real clouds have very little substance to them, and this buzzword has even less.

      I hadn’t seen the article you mention. Interesting read. Not quite sure I understand it properly yet.

  • Yeah – systems like Immediacy were using ‘AJAX’ techniques way back in the early noughties – a long time before the hype anyway.

    Personally I have a long standing respect for ‘Big Blue’ though and its deep understanding of knowledge and information management. Know doubt there are more informed technical opinions on this but experiences in helping implement its Quickplace/Workplace solutions pre SharePoint demonstrated that its thinking on business collaboration was way ahead. Granted SharePoint popularised and gave ‘collaboration’ mass business market appeal but I have rarely had a SharePoint implementation experience from a user perspestive that was as good as the IBM capabilities that pre-dated it.

    So – when IBM starts making rumblings around things like the Open Cloud Manifesto I start to think that a descriptive concept, which as you rightly say has little substance, actually has some deeper, real substance underneath.

    • I’m with you, the rumblings will amount to something. IBM do have substance, of course. But at the moment, the signal to noise ratio is so high, I don’t know where to start. I do think real standards will emerge around things like secure messaging across networks, workflow across networks, security/ACLs across networks and more. But what part of this is or isn’t Cloud Computing, and seems to be years away.

      The first item on the Open Cloud Manifesto FAQ is:

      Q: What is the Open Cloud Manifesto?
      A: The Open Cloud Manifesto establishes a core set of principles to
      ensure that organizations will have freedom of choice, flexibility, and
      openness as they take advantage of cloud computing. While cloud
      computing has the potential to have a positive impact on
      organizations, there is also potential for lock-in and lost flexibility if
      appropriate open standards are not identified and adopted.
      Key members of the cloud community worked together to produce this
      document and endorse it to establish a set of core principles around
      the open cloud.

      I’d like to see a question before that. What is Cloud Computing? Cause I couldn’t answer that right now. My favourite answer so far might be this one, which has very little to do with all the hype: http://cloudcomputing.sys-con.com/node/579826

  • I love full-on rants (as long as they’re cogent and well-reasoned), and this one is terrific. Entertaining, thought-provoking, timely — what else could anybody want in a rant?

    Let’s review: Cloud, “Grid Computing,” SaaS, Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, AJAX, SOA, Web Services, Social Web … all buzzwords that tried to go too far, do too much, while wrapping things that already existed under better-understood names. Out of these, Web Services has the most concrete basis (as buzzwords go); it actually refers to something. But even WS was quickly hijacked and its meaning perverted by pundits and jackass analyst-types.

    Er… hey wait a minute. I *am* one of those analyst-types…

  • I recommend the recent series on FT digital business podcasts: http://www.ft.com/technology/digitalbusiness

    The Cloud is undoubtedly a buzzword for application service provision, but I don’t think we should knock it. If you say it’s just the internet, while that’s true you have to remember that most people don’t know what the internet is.

    The other aspect is that players with huge resources like Amazon will be able to provide storage and power at a cost and flexibility that traditional co-lo and managed service providers cannot; that virtualisation will be increasingly important; and that this has a direct impact on hardware provision.

    This is why Larry might be so tetchy about it: he’s just paid for a whole load of kit in order to get an application server. Moreover, his biggest competitors in Microsoft and Google and going more and more cloudy. So you’d expect him to berate them.

    If the Cloud stops people talking their usual drivel about enclosed enterprise applications and gets them to understand the internet’s potential better, then I think as web development professionals we should be happy about it.

  • Kas,

    I like your buzzword list. I’d put “SaaS, Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Social Web” into the Marketing Buzzword Bucket. They haven’t helped anyone. I think AJAX was useful as it named something that needed a name. Reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and “the power of true names”. Web Services always had focus and substance but because it had a catchy name instead of something like “Discoverable-HTTP-XML-RPC” the marketeers grabbed it and confused people for a while.

    I think that “Grid Computing” is the closest thing to “Cloud Computing” by a long way. It’s nothing to do with the Internet, really. It’s about a new level of abstraction that we need to understand super-powerful, self-managing, MapReduce enabling virtual machines. And about the social-economic impacts that come with this – privacy, licensing and a whole lot more. They might even “solve” Chess by analysing the entire game tree to decide that White Wins or White Draws. That’ll be weird.

    I’d go as far as to say that Wikipedia would benefit if someone took this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grid_computing, did a little s/Grid/Cloud/g, and updated their Cloud Computing entry.

  • I couldn’t agree with your more. I put together my own rant last week.

    “I purchased a cloud. Did you? Wait. What is a could?”



    • Shane,

      Your rant rocks. Strongly recommend it to everyone. Our sentiments are almost identical. The main difference is that you seem to prefer being shot with a nailgun, while I’d rather take a normal bullet and end it quickly. And you understand Utility Computing better than I do.

      Blogroll += Shane Johnson

  • hmmm – makes the marketing messaging I wrote for Immediacy a couple of years ago seem almost sane…
    Forget the hype and buzzwords – this stuff ain’t new!!!

    • Yeah, knowing Microsoft it will abadnon this line of products in a few years (see Visual Studio history and the phrase Microsoft no longer supports [fill in blank] ) and we’re stuck with our data strewn across the world, unable to access it. Ironically, our data WILL be accessible by every malicious person on this planet.

  • quality rant JOn and I agree with you that thee is enough confusion around cloud to make it almost meaningless….but, I think there is some reality to the hype.

    Nick Carr and are Joe Weinman two of the better folks with explanations of this phenomena and I think one key is to separate cloud and virtualisation. One way to build a cloud is virtualisation but they should be treated as separate. in the same way that SaaS can be delivered from a cloud computing platform but it’s not essential.

    for me, cloud is more defined by things like consumption based computing or utility computing than the technologies used to deliver it.

    have a read of http://gigaom.com/2009/04/11/6-half-truths-about-the-cloud/ and http://gigaom.com/2009/04/19/another-half-dozen-half-truths-of-the-cloud/

    plenty of good stuff in there to sort the wheat from the chaff


  • What Cloud Computing means,

    1. Virtualised Infrastructure (i.e. controllable solely by software)
    2. “Pay as you go/pay as you use” cost structure
    3. The ability to scale down as fast and as easily as you scale up
    4. No cap on resource utilisation

    • Avatar

      “1. Virtualised Infrastructure (i.e. controllable solely by software)”

      I.E = Internet Explorer is a software , so a software will control internet explorer? hmm that would be windows

  • Steve, Joe,

    Thanks for some sensible replies. These are the definitions of Cloud Computing that do make sense but are drowned out by the noise. I really enjoyed the Joe Weinman articles which should go straight onto the Wikipedia page. I like the way he says that Cloud Computing is orthogonal to virtualisation – that makes sense. I shouldn’t care if the cloud is physical or virtual. I also really enjoyed these articles: http://www.the-network-effect.com/

    I still don’t understand if there is a major difference between this and what we used to call Grid or Utility computing. Or is the idea that with Grid computing that there was only going to be one Uber-Grid, while we’ll have a lot of Clouds run by different companies?

    And what exactly are the standards that the different working groups trying to address? Are they aimed at Cloud Builders to ensure they build them in a standard way? Or aimed at an interface which Application Builders can use to ensure that their apps can be hosted on any Cloud (maybe a bit like a language independent OSGi)? It feels to me that the standards are going to be more at the infrastructure level than the application level, which is maybe why people like me that play in the software tier don’t completely get it.

    There is no doubt that these powerful clouds, near infinite resources and different pricing models are going to change things. But they already have. That’s what *aaS was about. Is there any reason to expect that the Cloud-* standards are going to arrive any more quickly than the much hyped Grid-* ones?

  • GRID computing was (is?) focussed on giving access to supercomputing resources. Cloud Computing is focussed on giving you access to a large number of standardised infrastructure components.

    Utility computing was the vision, cloud computing is the reality.

    There are no standards (too early yet) except the general agreement that a REST API is preferable to SOAP (sanity rules!).

    Interestingly the Microsoft storage API is much richer than Amazon’s and may offer MS a significant advantage when they finally get their pricing sorted out.

  • I’m with Joe on the responses wrt to grid and utility. I think a key areas of standards will be interop between cloud and ability to compose an app or service that spans different cloud platforms

  • another worthy read – this time covering the offerings from Microsoft, Google and Amazon

  • Merde alors, great rant, missing your rants with a pint, guess I’ll have to make do with the blog rants… Love the “geek and poke” explanation :)

  • An excellent rant — well said indeed. I agree there is a great deal of hype and even more confusion around cloud computing right now. I also agree that it’s not particularly new, in most cases.
    But I do believe that there is some potentially new ‘stuff’ we can do with the emergent cloud computing platforms, as I describe in this special report I wrote for CBR magazine:

  • Deadsilly

    I am reminded of the forces of the marketplace. I am always going into stores and getting told yes we USED to stock that but only limited number of people purchased this so we were forced to rationalise our product line. I therefore conclude people are idiots and I foresee the “cloud” is no different. I can see that corporations are going to plan the cloud based on X numbers of average users. I also foresee the current trend of netbooks and “the cloud” as returning to the good all day of dumb clients thus I will be trying to stay ahead of the trend awaiting the demise of cloud computing. Yes and good luck for all trying to render models on their netbooks.

    The dinosaur on his mobile workstation.

  • James Humphrey

    I don’t care if this is an old post; I love it and the comments. Very thoughtful and actually quite useful even today. I don’t think anyone has just summed it up by saying the following: “Cloud computing has had its definition so overstretched as to be a practically useless term.” I’m just going to get past my anger with marketing speak and simply ignore any term with the word “cloud” in it. Then I can dig deeper into whatever the person was trying to convey when they invoked the dreaded word.

  • Brian

    The Cloud is a great way to shift responsibility for your data infrastructure to someone else, while still remaining culpable. It’s a good way to downsize an IT department and simultaneously have nowhere to turn in the event of massive lossy lossness.
    It helps increase the divide between the haves (Google, MS, etc.) and the have-nots (the IT kids in your datacenter) by moving your interests from hardware and infrastructure that you own already to a datacenter that you will probably never see, run by irate IT kids who were canned from their jobs, ironically, at your company.

    Decrease your IT costs, my ass. ISO XXXX certified? With a datacenter you don’t know? Please.
    How is your data being redundantly stored in the cloud? Is it stored, redundantly, in the same server rack as the primary? Where, physically, is your cloud datacenter? Is it as safe as a NORAD bunker, or is it in a trailer in tornado alley? Does it have any security at all? You’d better hope so. The IT staff you’re booting to ‘reduce your it costs’ are certainly going to test it’s integrity.

    I have my fingers crossed hoping for a massive ‘storm’ to lose everyone’s google docs permanently. If you’re debating using cloud computing, at least do yourself a favor and get a tour of the server farm, ask questions, and plenty of them, and also realize that this company you’re talking to is NOT going to take responsibility in the event of some catastrophic data loss. Sure, they’ll SAY they’re going to, but I bet they spend as much on lawyers as they do on security.

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