What A Cloud Is And What A Cloud Isn’t

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We’ve all witnessed the hype surrounding cloud computing. As an IT trend, it’s so pervasive that the industry has adopted a pejorative for the vendors who, in search of mindshare or market cap, gratuitously call themselves “cloud washing.”

I suppose cloud washing is exactly what you’d expect in a large, frothy market—a hard-coded response to market opportunity. When there’s blood in the water, the sharks don’t stand idly by. But, for consumers of cloud services, the water is more muddy than bloody.

So, what exactly is cloud computing? Need music on demand? It’s in the cloud. Need server capacity? It’s there, too. Applications? Go to the cloud. The better question may be, what can’t cloud computing do? It seems that the only thing you can’t do in the cloud today is your laundry!

That’s why it’s important to understand what cloud computing is and what it could do for your organization.

Let’s start with some basic definitions:

  • Cloud is on – demand—Rather than waiting on an IT team to procure hardware and software, rack and stack servers, and install operating systems, middleware and applications, the services that you need are available when you need them, on demand. This translates into dramatic improvements in business agility.
  • Cloud is self-service—All of these services are available in a catalog—think of it as an app store for your organization. The theory is that even non-technical business users come equipped with everything they need to use and monitor their cloud service without IT intervention.
  • Cloud is elastic—Rather than paying in advance for unpredictable demand, cloud computing is priced and consumed on an elastic basis—like a utility. You purchase and consume only what you use. This improves utilization of services through more efficient demand allocation. It also reduces the economic barriers to IT services by allowing you to get started on the cheap.
  • Cloud is abstracted—A key tenant of cloud computing is hiding the complexity of infrastructure and underlying operating systems and middleware so developers and business users can get out of the weeds to focus on applications.

Now that we’ve clarified some definitions, let’s talk about the types of cloud services and how they may fit into your strategy. At the highest level, clouds come in three varieties:

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS)—provides the foundational infrastructure elements of computing, network and storage. You’re required to bring your own operating system, middleware and application. IaaS is generally used by developers who want easier access to hardware infrastructure to run their custom applications.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS)—provides operating system and middleware running operating system and middleware running on infrastructure, so all you need to provide is an application. Developers use PaaS to reduce the time and cost of dealing with the software layers below the application. Some PaaS frameworks also allow you to “mash up” applications by combining standard platform elements to create a simple application on the fly.
  • Software as a service (SaaS)—provides a turnkey application that has immediate business value. It’s typically purchased by and for business lines to serve non-differentiating business functions, such as customer service, HR and finance.

Next, it’s important to understand the deployment options for each of these cloud services. Similarly, cloud deployment options come in three varieties:

  • Public clouds—are third-party hosting providers who own the data centers and “lend” you cloud services on a subscription basis. Public clouds make the most sense for non-differentiating, unregulated workloads. In other words, if it’s critical that you create and sustain competitive advantage or if you’re beholden to regulations around data privacy, there’s a good chance public cloud isn’t a great fit.
  • Private clouds—are clouds that you build and manage in your own data center as a way to improve agility and responsiveness and better utilize IT infrastructure. Private clouds are the best option for regulated workloads and those that have business critical significance. Most large enterprises are beginning their cloud journey behind the firewall, but over time, they expect to take advantage of both public and private clouds.
  • Hybrid clouds—are a blend of public and private cloud and combine the best aspects of public and private. Hybrid clouds center on the optimization of where applications should run based on an assessment of price (Which is the cheaper option?), performance (Will it allow me to deliver the right service levels?) and policy (Will I be sued if this application is outside of my direct control?).

Of course, the type of cloud that’s best for you can only be determined by your circumstances. However, you can’t make intelligent choices without first understanding the range of options and the tradeoffs between them. Hopefully you can now focus your attention on what cloud computing can do for you.

About Michael Torto 1 Article
Mike Torto - CEO Mike Torto joins rPath as a three-time CEO with 20+ years of experience in enterprise software. As CEO of rPath, he leads the company's mission to dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of enterprise application delivery and system management. Prior to rPath, Mike served as CEO of Centive, a leader in on-demand sales compensation software, which was acquired by Xactly Corp. Before Centive, Mike served as president and CEO of InCert Software where he oversaw the company's growth and subsequent acquisition by Geodesic Systems. Previously, Mike was president and CEO of Swan International Inc, which he led to a successful IPO on the European EASDAQ. Earlier in Mike's career, he served in executive-level marketing roles for Interleaf, Intersolv and AICorp. Mike graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor's degree in mass communications and marketing from Emerson College in Boston.


  1. With technology evolving so rapidly, simple explanations like these are necessary to keep people up-to-date. Even those technically savvy may find themselves knowing conceptually what a cloud may be while still not being able to explain in concrete terms what it is and how it operates.

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