An Inconvenient Truth About Cloud Analogies

Holy cows and puppies: Most cloud analogies make no sense, says Citrix chief cloud advocate Reuven Cohen.

Reuven Cohen, Chief Cloud Advocate, Citrix Systems

December 6, 2013

4 Min Read

We in the technology sector love analogies. We love to describe the latest trends by using historical parallels to transfer meaning from one subject to another via this linguistic crutch. It's long been the central method we've used to educate the uninformed about the benefits of a new or possibly hyped technology. The approach almost always starts with something like "The tech is like something else, only better." More often than not, it isn't anything like what it's being compared to. My proposal is simple. It's time for us to stop using analogies to market technology.

Cloud computing, which itself is an analogy or possibly a metaphor wrapped in a euphemism, has seen more than its fair share of linguistic tricks applied to it over the years. Among the more frequent is the so-called "power grid" analogy. It goes like this, "Cloud computing is like plugging into a central power grid instead of generating your own power." OK, don't like that one? There's always the thermostat analogy, "Cloud computing is like giving your IT department thermostats that they can turn on, up, down, or off based on their needs. Need extra processing power to cover your peak period? Crank it up -- and then turn it down when you're finished."

Except, it isn't.

The latest in this long line of analogies is the idea of treating your infrastructure components like cattle, opposed to pets. Recently, the concept has been promoted on various blogs and was first described by Joshua McKenty, CTO and co-founder of Piston Cloud. "The servers in today's data center are like puppies -- they've got names, and when they get sick, everything grinds to a halt while you nurse them back to health," said McKenty.

He goes on to describe his OpenStack distro, one of many, as "a system for managing your servers like cattle. You number them, and when they get sick and you have to shoot them in the head, the herd can keep moving. It takes a family of three to care for a single puppy, but a few cowboys can drive tens of thousands of cows over great distances, all while drinking whiskey."

[Want to learn more about misused cloud terms? See Cutting Through The Hype On PaaS.]

So let me get this straight. We're supposed to be able to shoot our servers in the head while drinking whiskey and still effectively manage our infrastructure? Or are we supposed to slaughter them in the datacenter for a prime cut of beef? I'm so confused.

Arguably the OpenStack community has been the worst at generating a multitude of analogies to describe the framework. Among them is the idea that OpenStack is somehow the "Linux" of the cloud-computing world. Except, again, it isn't.

In a blog post, SUSE community marketing manager Brian Proffitt explained some of the differences. "The origins of Linux are grounded in the rather organic growth of the free software Linux kernel, which was plugged together with compilers and other pieces of software to form the Linux operating system. This was a very grassroots movement, which would only later attract the interest and resources of larger corporate players," said Proffitt.

"The origins of OpenStack, which were firmly rooted in open source licenses, are very different: Also, there is really no 'core' OpenStack -- the platform is a conglomeration of tools that handle tasks like compute and storage. OpenStack has also been very heavily involved with larger corporate interests almost from the very start."

If we are to believe that projects such as OpenStack are the "Linux" of cloud, what does that make the other players like CloudStack or Eucalyptus? The BSD of cloud? Berkeley Standard Distribution has quietly become among the most used, yet least hyped open-source operating systems. Among its many uses, it forms the core of Apple's OS X operating system, making it among the most profitable, albeit indirectly, of the open-source operating systems.

Many of you will probably say that my newfound disdain for technology analogies is the pot calling the kettle black. I admit, I've been among the worst at propagating baseless analogies. Among others, I once described a musical notation application as "Google Translate for music." (Editor's note: Good analogy, Reuven.) 

I once saw someone else's analogy -- "online surge protectors" for stopping user panics online -- and adopted it: "If you think of the load balancer as an analogy for a traditional electrical surge protector, you really start to see the opportunity for cloud bursting... used in much the same way you'd use a backup power supply or even a circuit breaker."  

And for that, all I can say is, I'm sorry.

Cloud Connect Summit, March 31 – April 1 2014, offers a two-day program colocated at Interop Las Vegas developed around "10 critical cloud decisions." Cloud Connect Summit zeros in on the most pressing cloud technology, policy and organizational decisions & debates for the cloud-enabled enterprise. Cloud Connect Summit is geared towards a cross-section of disciplines with a stake in the cloud-enabled enterprise. Register for Cloud Connect Summit today.

About the Author(s)

Reuven Cohen

Chief Cloud Advocate, Citrix Systems

Reuven Cohen, chief cloud advocate at Citrix, is the co-founder of Enomaly, an open-source consulting company founded in 2004, which came up with one of the first self-provisioning systems for IaaS. He is also co-founder of CloudCamp. Cohen joined Citrix in the fall of 2013. He is a frequent Tweeter and blogger for Forbes. 

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights