Overheard: Word of the Day

Oct 8 2007   11:51PM GMT

Overheard: What the heck is computing in a cloud?

Margaret Rouse Margaret Rouse Profile: Margaret Rouse

steve_lohr.jpg “The two companies [Google and IBM] are investing to build large data centers that students can tap into over the Internet to program and research remotely, which is called “cloud computing.”

Steve Lohr, Google and I.B.M. Join in ‘Cloud Computing’ Research

Steve Lohr’s New York Times story started a buzzfire. The trouble is, even as I was reading it, I had no idea what Steve Lohr was talking about.

It’s not his fault.

“Computing in a cloud” is something Jeff Bezos name-dropped like crazy a year ago at MIT. Now here it is again.

What the heck is it?

Allow me to explain, Graszhoppa.

Many years ago, way back in 2003 or so, a computing model called “distributed computing” was being shopped around by The Open Group.

In this model, a big processing job gets split up into lots of little jobs and distributed out to different computers. The objective? To get super-computer power without having to build or buy a super-computer.

Clever eh? The University of Illinois thought so back in 1979.

So did SETI.

SETI stands for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” Because looking for ET requires a lot of computing power, scientists running the project asked for volunteers — ordinary people — to sign up on the Internet and donate their their home computer’s extra processing power. All this extra power could be harnessed over the Internet and coordinated to make a kind of virtual supercomputer. The project was called SETI@home. Lots of people signed up, including me.

Still following? Good.

Jump forward to 2007. Today, Wikipedia, Facebook and Google use this same distributed computing model — without the volunteers at home. It’s what you need for applications that are so big that you could never build them on a single server.

It’s what the future is going to look like when we don’t have to install our own software anymore. That’s right, Grazshoppa. Pretty soon we’ll access all our software applications over the Internet. Google and IBM Adobe are betting on it. So is Microsoft.

Now here’s the important part. For some reason the name “distributed computing” never caught on with the press. I’m not sure why. It seems to be a perfectly logical name, but it was kind of dull and well…ordinary. It never really got the attention it deserved. The name “Web computing” was vague and equally dull. It too, quickly faded out of the headlines.

So techies, being the patient persistent type, thought up a different name and promoted the model again.

This time they tried calling it “parallel computing.” It sounded important. But the name confused people. Parallel computing sounded too complicated, like it might have something to do with the inside of a computer.

So the techies changed the name once again — this time they decided to call it “grid computing. ”

Grid computing was a friendlier name. It even sounded like it might have something to do with football. It looked good in headlines. Unfortunately, it made headlines right around the same time green computing did and people got confused, thinking it something to do with power grids and saving money on electricity.

Cluster computing didn’t work either. Somehow, it sounded vaguely sexual — an orgy of processing, cables and cords entwined in a hot server room. Nah. People felt embarrassed talking about cluster computing.

They considered “hardware as a service” but that brought up images of suits and budgets and contract negotiation. Better to avoid anything that smacked of service contracts. Big business likes to have control.

And anything with “outsourcing” in the title scared the hell out of people in the U.S. — so they wanted to avoid that word.

What to call it? Hmmmmmm.

Frustrated with stupid media people who were unable to understand and get behind a concept that is really quite simple (dividing up work and distributing it out) — those clever techies got together and thought up a name that:

1. Didn’t sound too complicated.
2. Would be easy to remember and look good in headlines.
3. Wouldn’t scare anyone.

They decided to call it “computing in a cloud.”

How clever! Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

IBM marketers thought so. They jumped right in and created a Blue Cloud.

No? You still don’t understand what “computing in a cloud” is?

Here’s a way to understand it: SETI was the only example of the distributed computing model that tech media people seemed to understand and SETI looks for intelligence in outer space — up there in the clouds.

By choosing this name, they’re joking that they’re looking for intelligent life.

So the new name they’ve invented for the press and hope we’ll finally accept and promote like crazy is “cloud computing.”

Get it? The intelligent life they seek is us, the media.

Those techies are so amusing.

It’s just distributed computing, young one.

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