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2/19/2009
01:48 PM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
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Cloud, Farm, Grid, Utility or IaaS: What's in a Name?

Recently, a colleague attended a cloud-computing workshop and mentioned a bit of trivia. One of the experts at the event didn't like the word 'cloud' and insisted on using the term "Infrastructure as a Service." What's in a name? Everything or nothing, depending on your point-of-view. You could argue that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but you could also argue that the right name, with the right connotations, is what takes trends past a tipping point. So let me offer you impartial thumbnail 'name analysis' of the common candidates, and you decide which you like.CloudCharacteristics: right-brained and metaphoric. Suggests both the key attribute (abstraction) as well as a host of qualitivative features, like scalability (clouds come in different sizes), power (lightning), sheer size (millions of condensation particles - servers - in even a tiny cloud). It also suggests heavenly levels of power and fluidity.Advantage: appeals to right-brained types, increasingly important as IT becomes a more artistic field today, where design instincts a-la Steve Jobs matter.Disadvantage: has connotations of 'head in the cloud' and a certain faddishness.FarmCharateristics: As in "server farm." Never really caught on outside of the need to talk about the actual facilities involved. Has the advantage of emphasizing the ideas of growth and fertility and nutritional content. Indirectly and weakly connotes grid and utility like characteristics by association with "Windmill farm" and the possibility of "farming" idle compute power everywhere in the future. But main connotation today is a big building with racks and racks of servers.Advantage: most physically accurate metaphor for the actual "stuff" involved.Disadvantage: misses the key attribute of abstraction and irrelevance of location and physical structure of computing resources. Also misses the idea that the cloud could itself be distributed in the future, like those screensaver supercomputers today.GridCharacteristics: Direct analogy to electric power grid, suggests physical nature more broadly than 'farm.' Conveys the idea that the value is in the network, not just the nodes.Advantage: analogy to power grid conveys some accurate ideas.Disadvantage: Associated with a previous generation of technology to some extent. The name also has a bias towards suggesting "distributed" just like "farm" has a bias towards "centralized."UtilityCharacteristics: The full term is "Utility-based computing" and has been around a while. Accurately conveys the delivery (remote) and business model (annuity). Like "grid" conveys by analogy the features of electric power like distribution, but with focus on the service providers rather than the public-commons infrastructure.Advantage: Most accurate understanding of the business model of providers.Disadvantage: a little impoverished. People think "utility" and think "commodity." This misses the fertile possibilities of doing more with clouds and cloud-based apps. Unlike electric power, information living in "utility" mode can generate a lot more variety.IaaSCharacteristics: A family-based name, in the *aaS family. Besides s/w as a service, I've heard people use the terms hardware as a service, knowledge as a service and people as a service. Suggests the breadth and ambition of what is going on. Fits in with Obama's grand infrastructure revitalization plans in the US, suggests relationships with other types of infrastructure besides the power grid (eg. roads, railroards, parks, bridges...). Most accurately conveys the huge complexity of what is going on.Advantage: The only one of the lot that conveys the true complexity and excitement.Disadvantage: non-metaphoric, not-exciting and does not communicate clearly with right-brainers. Does not stand out as a paradigm shift due to association with simpler *aaS terms.ConclusionSo what's your pick? I'd like to say "different terms best suit different contexts and communication purposes" but names don't work that way. One catches on and snowballs, and so far, it seems to be "cloud." Still we can use other terms in talks and conversations if it is useful.Any other names? Any thoughts on how to be creative and effective in your language around this technology (both to improve the clarity of your own thinking and the quality of your communications).Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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