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Cloud Computing Doesn't Have to Be Vague

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
-- Joni Mitchell, "Both Sides, Now"

Cloud computing is hot. But you knew that. Trouble is, it seems to have become one of those trends that generates so much buzz vendors feel an irresistible compulsion to stand in front of the parade while deftly (or not so deftly) tweaking the definition just enough to get their product or service offering under the tent. Alas, the devil will serve lemonade before this changes.

Like virtualization, cloud computing is pretty amorphous and therefore open to marketing spin. Analysts often take on the job of deconstructing the hype and providing frameworks and taxonomies that sort out the resulting confusion. Jeff Kaplan, managing director of an independent company called ThinkStrategies, has taken a good shot at this in a recent blog where he discusses the difference between SaaS and cloud computing.

Jeff talks about an e-mail he received from a frustrated company executive discussing a trade publication that was conflating cloud computing and SaaS (it wasn't Virtualization Review -- honest!). Acknowledging that the frustration is shared by many, he goes on to make some good distinctions:

"I view cloud computing as a broad array of Web-based services aimed at allowing users to obtain a wide range of functional capabilities on a 'pay-as-you-go' basis that previously required tremendous hardware/software investments and professional skills to acquire.

Cloud computing is the realization of the earlier ideals of utility computing without the technical complexities or complicated deployment worries. With this precept in mind, I see SaaS as a subset or segment of the cloud computing market."

I like Jeff's distinction. Cloud computing is a broad concept and can come in a wide variety of flavors. It can range from pure computing capacity resources, such as Amazon's EC2, or involve specific services or applications such as what -- the classic SaaS poster child -- offers.

But an interesting question comes up in this context: What are the touch points between virtualization and cloud computing? Seen from one vantage point, Google Gmail is a virtualized application that runs in Google's increasingly all-encompassing cloud. But this isn't true virtualization is it? I asked Natalie Lambert over at Forrester what she thought:

"Great question -- and one that I get asked a lot. Honestly, I see Gmail as a classic Web application. It uses a browser to execute code and uses the processing power of the local PC -- not what I typically think about when talking about hosted app virt. In addition, Web apps can store local data (such as cookies). This is all to say that there really isn't a clear abstraction layer, thus again, not really hosted app virtualization. However, it is not the hypervisor that is my hold up -- it is the lack of abstraction."

In yet another incarnation, a cloud offering can use a form of desktop virtualization essentially as an enabling technology. In this case, that cloud offering would be called Desktop as a Service or DaaS and be provided by either a telecom carrier or the outsourcing arm of an IT systems vendor or a systems integrator using products provided by companies such as Desktone. Finally, server virtualization can be viewed as an enabling technology and an accelerator of cloud computing and SaaS providers have used it to optimize their offerings.

What are your thoughts on the sometimes tricky relationship between virtualization and cloud computing? Post here or send me an e-mail.

Posted by Tom Valovic on 08/04/2008 at 12:49 PM


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