Data Delivery

Cloud Buzz vs. Cloud Reality

Nowadays, cloud computing is as mainstream as a technology can get, but Aaron wonders how much of that is due to marketers dumbing down the concept of "the cloud."

Do you know what the "cloud" is? I posed that question to a group of students a couple of weeks ago. I was giving them a short presentation on genomic data and the work that my team does to help build infrastructure to support translational research.

During these kind of presentations, my intro typically talks about high-level architecture, which includes slides about our use of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and overall cloud services. I was the third presenter of the day, and it was just after lunch. My slides, particularly for this audience, were going to put them to sleep. So I broke from the script in the first slide and asked them, "What is the cloud?" The audience comprised about eight individuals, all in their early 20s. There were face contortions and fidgeting in response to my question -- none of them wanted or knew how to answer.

In fairness, I could ask that same question of many people of varying ages and technical expertise, and I would get a wide range of answers. However, I was particularly interested in what a younger, less technically biased group would say. These individuals were all, or soon to be, college graduates, some with higher degrees. All of them had interest in careers in health care and life sciences.

Eventually, they spoke up, and the answers to my question were surprising. First, most of them looked up, as if they were looking at -- you guessed it -- an actual cloud. One of them actually put their arms in the air and positioned both hands above their head in the shape of a circle-like shape -- yes, round like a cloud. Did they actually think their data was floating above them? Were the servers actually floating above us? Is that where servers go after they're decommissioned?  

It became very apparent that the branding of "the cloud" was actually making them believe their data was in something that resembled a cloud, and was following them around. 

After a laugh or two, everyone acknowledged that there wasn't any levitating data. But I was now intrigued, so I pressed them more. I asked, "Do you think the cloud is secure?" I did not get any solid affirmations. Again, the question made them uncomfortable. One of them spoke up: "Doesn't cloud let anyone get to the data, from anywhere?" Some of the group nodded their heads as if to agree. 

My mind immediately went to Microsoft's "To the cloud!" commercials (see below). How many times in these individuals' young lives did they see those commercials and ads? They must have been bombarded with caricatures of clouds bouncing around, and IT guys smiling about data accessibility and how "easy" it was to put their data into the cloud and have it follow them.

This made me think: What or who termed it the "cloud"? After the meeting, I did some searching. In just a couple of minutes of browsing, I came to find that there is contention as to who invented the term. I always thought the term was from network drawings of IT networking components, where off-network services where drawn with a cloud-like figures around them, representing how they were not controlled by the internal IT team (see below).

Source: Wikipedia

The cloud figure was always in the standard Microsoft or similar workflow templates. However, there are records showing that individuals pitched this concept to Compaq in the mid-'90s. Ironically, the marketing people at Compaq chose not to use the work "cloud computing" and instead went with "Internet computing."  Obviously, that didn't stick.

Whoever or whatever the origin of the term "cloud," large providers of cloud services took the concept and ran with it -- and so did the media. Taking a complicated term or technology and using simple (if not childish) terms to describe it is not something novel. Think of what IBM is doing with Watson. However, cloud terminology and branding have been used shamelessly in marketing materials, to the point that it's become difficult to determine what cloud is and who is providing it. 

The term "cloud computing" didn't come into the public's awareness until 2007; now it is part of our U.S. vernacular. Even for the most technical and bleeding-edge companies, the term "cloud" is watered-down -- very similar to what is happening to the term "big data." If someone pitches me what they are doing about big data in the cloud, either my eyes glaze over or I politely tell them I am not interested.

Back to my presentation. The group was now in active discussion about cloud and what they thought it was. The mood had lightened as they were now just spewing out buzzwords and concepts they had heard from various ads and commercials, or maybe it was what their parents thought the cloud was. About five minutes in, I had to focus the group back on the presentation. But my thoughts kept coming back to what the simplification of cloud computing has done to the perception of the overall security of those services.

Currently, cloud providers are trying hard to convince health care providers to put their protected data in their infrastructure. Are they missing the real audience they need to convince? Don't they need to convince you? Because the data being sent, stored and protected by cloud providers is about you, not the health care providers. 

Has the branding of cloud, at least to the general public, given it the perception that it is open for all, that the data follows you around, and that it's easy to access? Does a generation that is constantly wired and sending millions if not billions of pictures, texts and media to the "cloud" feel differently about their health data? If given the opportunity to send their most private data to a cloud service, will they have they have the confidence to do it? For those of us who are not in our 20s, would you put your health information -- or, even more telling, your children's health information -- in the cloud?

About the Author

Aaron Black is the director of informatics for the Inova Translational Medicine Institute (ITMI), where he and his team are creating a hybrid IT architecture of cloud and on-premises technologies to support the ever-changing data types being collected in ITMI studies. Aaron is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Certified Scrum Master (CSM), and has dozens of technical certifications from Microsoft and accounting software vendors. He can be reached at @TheDataGuru or via LinkedIn.


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