Remember ASP? No, not Microsoft’s Active Server Pages. I mean Application Service Provider. What about SaaS? Not a misspelling for sassy. Software as a Service. Really, ASP became SaaS, which helped spawn cloud computing. Easy, huh? The problem is that the definition of cloud computing is all over the map. I can pretty much guarantee that if I talk to three people in a business, I will get three different answers if I ask what cloud computing is to them. And, the sad thing is that they’d all be right. Okay, it might not be sad. But it is amusing.

But the really sad amusing thing is that there are executives all over the world that are getting caught up in the phrase. Fleeced by the phrase, if you will. The most damaging are those who believe it will rescue their IT spending by wresting control from IT to a third-party. They pour a bunch of money into leveraging the cloud, layoff a bunch of good IT pros, and then realize they aren’t seeing the service levels they wanted, or the anticipated returns on investment. I’m shocked. (No, I’m really not.) The more innocuous are those who want to meet with other executives and demonstrate how forward-thinking their companies are because they have implemented cloud solutions. My favorite? Moving email to the cloud. I have a few horror stories I’ve heard about that concept. I don’t like to give advice to people without learning more about their business, and the issues it faces. But I feel comfortable saying that experimenting with a business-critical application as a first toe in the water is not generally a winning strategy. If you don’t believe me, try it and let me know how it went. I have an open mind.

Cloud computing? It’s an ambiguous term. Some define it as solutions that aren’t within a company’s borders. (Or as we tech people like to say, “behind their firewalls.”) So, if you have a company and are using a service that isn’t within your company’s borders (like SalesForce.com or an ADP payroll service that has a web front-end), the internal sponsors of those solutions would likely say they are using a cloud service. Fair enough. I remember teaching some colleagues (at a prior job) some basic skills for transaction communication across the Internet. Between locations, I drew a big cloud, which I called the Internet. This wasn’t me leveraging right brain creativity. It was how a wide area network (or the Internet in a more global scenario) was represented in the diagramming software I used. To liven it up, I called it a nice cumulus cloud…nice and puffy. (I’m also a pilot, and we are careful to not add nimbus to our clouds–bad news.) The point is, my picture stated that the Internet was a cloud. Using that very simple example, one can pretty much say that the Internet is the cloud, and then infer that anything contained on the Internet (and therefore in the cloud) is cloud computing. Nothing is that easy in technology. We lose our jobs if we keep things that easy. So, we find ways to complicate matters–just for the purpose of having experts that will help companies/people figure it out. And, of course, to make really smart people feel uneasy if they don’t know what we’re talking about. We’re evil, at times.

I’ve worked at companies that had large data centers. These data centers were the nerve centers for all of the companies’ computing operations. These were within their borders. In early cases, the Internet wasn’t available for them to leverage. (They weren’t education or defense companies, so tough tarts for them.) In order to connect to data centers that weren’t in the same geographic locations, they had to lease very expensive lines from telecommunications vendors. (AT&T, MCI, GTE, etc.) The wide area network mentioned above was this solution. WAN for those of you who love acronyms.

When the Internet became a free-for-all (which it is), these companies could move their data centers outside of their borders to the same companies that were costing them a fortune for those expensive lines. When this was done, the data centers were considered as “co-located” in a third-party vendor’s location. The companies no longer had them within their borders. This was desirable, as the management of the incoming communications lines, electric supply, cooling, and space was no longer their problem. Think of owning a house versus renting a house. The water heater breaking goes from your headache to the landlord’s headache. Same concept.

The companies could have the third-party providers do this. (For a price, of course.) This co-location solution matured into managed co-location (where the vendor managed even more of the infrastructure–down to a server level, or even operating system). Driving further into the food chain, they took it to the point of operating everything down to the point that all a company needed to do is upload an application that they’d created, and the third-party provider would take care of the rest. Well, guess what? You got it. This is also another definition people are using for “cloud computing.”

The latest trend that didn’t really migrate from anything within a company’s borders (aside from an overall idea, I suppose) is leveraging “hooks” into applications that a third-party provider is hosting. So, If I write a software solution that needs to have some sort of data analytics as a part of the overall solution, I’m in luck. In the “old days,” I would have had to write my own solution, or buy a solution and build the internal infrastructure to support this functionality. It was a lot of money, time, and generally not something I wanted to do. Now, I can merely tell my application to leverage some data analytic solution that is stored on some other company’s infrastructure–even if it isn’t at all affiliated with my third-party provider. So, it is conceivable that I have my application running at a “cloud” vendor location in Seattle, talking to a data analytics “cloud” vendor location in Chicago, presenting data to someone sitting in Peoria. Probably at their new airport terminal. Cool, huh? Well, sure…as long as everyone plays by the rules. The reality is that it seldom goes this smoothly. The logistics are unimaginable at times.

So, you see, the definition of cloud computing these days is pretty much anything anyone wants it to be–as long as it follows the premise that some part of the “solution” must be somewhere on the Internet.

My blog is designed from the ground up to be “cloud aware.” The solution is using the latest technologies to ensure that you, the reader, is presented with a cost-effective, scalable solution that will bring you an outstanding return on investment (ROI), which will demonstrate its value continually through your business life-cycle. Ugh. This is the sales-speak I get to listen to every day, read about every day, and have thrown at me every time I see a vendor with the next best thing. Or, worse, listen to an executive lament about how far behind her company is because she’s missing the billion dollar revenue gain by moving her email to the cloud. Sure.

But my own take on the cloud isn’t nearly as interesting as some of the vendors out there. Here’s an excerpt from an email I received:

Handing over your data to cloud SaaS is troubling enough for CIOs, but it’s even worse when a CIO comes to realize they have lost control of that data. Since departments outside of IT are purchasing cloud applications, it’s easy for the CIO to lose control of what is or is not kept within the security and processes of the organization. Carolyn Duffy Marsan writes about the 5 signs that indicate you’ve lost control of cloud apps in your company and what you can do to combat the loss.

Though I understand the premise (business units are doing things that may not align with the IT data security guidelines), the construct of the message is a bit annoying. It misses the point of a CIO. A CIO’s sole purpose is to provide and manage relevant technologies that will enable the business to thrive. This message is a bit 20th century, in that it is expressing the tired old view that CIOs (and IT) have a kingdom to control. In essence, the quote is suggesting another means by which IT should be the master of the universe. Been there.

My definition of cloud computing? I don’t have one yet. I figure that if I wait long enough, it will morph into some other term in the next few years that will be the next best thing since sliced bread. I suppose if I look at mobile devices, and wireless communication, I could say that the next buzz phrase will be Airborne Computing Infrastructure (ACI). Yeah, there’s a reason I’m not in marketing.

My thoughts on cloud computing? Drop the phrase of the day and call the solutions what they represent: outsourced data centers, outsourced server management, application integration partnerships, etc. Why do I frown on generalization? Because generalization, when it comes to solutions, is for marketing people. Marketing people are in the business of getting people interested in something, and making sure they remember what they want them to remember. IT people (in which I am included) focus on details–you know–like building and operating the solution.