Jargon Dictionary #1: “The Cloud”


The cloud

Introducing “the cloud”
One of Jason Fried’s best insights is that business writing is terrible. It is surprisingly difficult to notice this lack of quality, if only because the Web is full of soundalikes and it’s easy to lapse into a browsing coma and just start believing that this shit is normal. After a while, you just figure that everyone is a solutions provider leveraging core competencies to create tangible ROI for stakeholders. Not only that, but they’re also using “the cloud” to make it all happen.

Explaining the cloud to someone who isn’t an IT asshole or a startup entrepreneur is difficult. It’s a model – sorry, paradigm – that isn’t based on anything understandable in the real world. What does an actual cloud do? Nothing – it is mostly immaterial and unsubstantial (how appropriate), and so any terminology inviting comparisons with it is starting from scratch. How apropos – having a blank slate is useful if you have a nebulous topic to define.

What you need to know about “the cloud”

  • Term: the cloud
  • Also known as: Cloud computing, cloud compute (yes, without the participle form)
  • Sample jargony definition: “Cloud Computing is a broad term that describes a broad range of services.”(via Rackspace – wow, that clears it up)
  • Sample English definition: “Cloud computing is a great euphemism for centralization of computer services under one server.” – (via Evgeny Morozov)
  • Use it in a jargony sentence: “The cloud enables the flexibility and scalability need to support particularly demanding applications, giving service providers new opportunities to become more agile and provision resources more quickly.” – (via me, off the top of my head)
  • Use it in a jargony sentence written by someone else: “Cloud computing has changed the way businesses work. It has opened the doors to increased collaboration.” (via AVG – I wasn’t far off)
  • Use it in an English sentence: “The cloud is stuff that that is exchanged over the Internet.”

Why is “the cloud” jargon?
Now, I said that the cloud is tough to explain to the layperson. Eons ago, I wondered if Dropbox were so much more intuitive than its competitors because it wrapped server storage in a metaphor that was easy to grasp – a “box” in which you stashed your stuff. In comparison, Google Drive and OneDrive symbolized something that no one particularly likes (a hard drive) and iCloud was the worst of all, using IT jargon to stand in for something that is already too complex for most consumers to understand.

The cloud is also hard to understand because it is just an elaborate synonym for the Internet, itself a dense concept. If you have dabbled any in computer programming, you may have stumbled across the term “object-oriented programming,” which suffers from a similar disease – it is based on abstract concepts without facile real world equivalents and is as inaccessible, at least conceptually, as Kilimanjaro to beginners.

What’s the point of talking so much about “the cloud”?
The cloud is the be-all/end-all of business transformation, we’re told. It’s a vehicle for anything you want to plug:

  • Data storage – Dropbox, Google Drive, et al
  • “Collaboration”  – Google Docs, GitHub, etc.
  • Anything backed by a server – Netflix, YouTube, whatever

It’s a great marketing term, end of story. It sounds sleek (who doesn’t love clouds?) and it’s roomy enough to contain any message you want. But really, the cloud is a way for some companies to sell customers tons of abstract stuff to customers. For example, Business A may have been storing all of its data on site (“on-premises”), but now it thinks it can have things easier by using someone else’s (Business B’s) machines instead. It’s like renting computer power – there’s real $$$ to be made on charging customers indefinitely rather than all at once (in jargon, this is expressed as “OPEX versus CAPEX” – stay tuned for a future Jargon Dictionary entry on these terms).

The cloud is all things to all people: It is cheap, it is expensive, it is a good idea, it is a bad idea, it is secure, it is risky, it is public, it is private. Aristophanes would be proud, since he predicted all of this cognitive dissonance 2,500 years ago. And as George W. Bush would say, if you don’t stand for anything, you don’t stand for anything!

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