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In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the book), a race of highly intelligent beings get fed up with debating over the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything and decide to find the answer once and for all. They build a giant computer called Deep Thought and, just as they’re about to start the program to discover the answer, they are interrupted by a pair of philosophers who are opposed to running this program on the grounds that it would put them out of a job. In the ensuing dialogue between the philosophers and Deep Thought one of the philosophers keeps contradicting himself.

“The Cloud” is also confusing and contradictory. Now, ask a room of people with varying technical backgrounds to explain “the Cloud,” and I’d bet the response would be about as coherent and contradictory as the comments from the philosophers who met Deep Thought.

I think the confusion exists because companies try to differentiate themselves with their own explanation and spin. However, once you wade through the buzz words, everyone is basically talking about the same capabilities: making something happen on a computer from another computer, data being stored remotely, or a combination of the two ideas. Since I’m a programmer, I like to blame the marketing people for this chaos, but it really isn’t their faults. The Cloud is just a big, complex network.

“The Cloud” is like an onion. There’s a saying in programming circles that goes something like the following: “Any complex problem becomes simple by adding another layer of indirection.” At first, this might sound weird, but the idea is that when programmers create solutions, we create layers that build on each other. Picture an onion cut in half, each layer wrapped around the one before, adding to the size and structure of the whole.

Here’s a simple example. When writing programs, it’s common to need to create a directory. The operating system provides the ability to make this directory, but it typically requires that all the directories above it in the tree exist first. To keep code simple and direct, programmers will create a wrapper (a layer) that uses the system functionality to create the directory and any missing intermediate directories. In effect, this adds another layer to the onion.

The same thing happens when companies talk about “the Cloud.” There are a lot of different layers and meanings depending on who’s doing the talking. Hardware vendors will spin things towards their hardware, and tend to talk about the lower (inner) layers. Software vendors spin the higher (outer) layers to their solutions. And it gets worse when these vendors start spinning the same solutions to different audiences.

This is why when I hear different, often conflicting, ideas over what “the Cloud” is, I chuckle and know they’re just arguing over rings of the onion. Maybe I’ll just dip mine in batter and deep fry it. Maybe you’ll remember the philosophers talking with Deep Thought and chuckle now, too.

 

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This article was written by Dave S

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