Cloud computing is the hot buzzword these days. This seems to be true whether you’re trying to find a safe online environment for your toddler or implementing some new mortgage technology. Everyone wants to be in the cloud or at least have their software there, but few seem to understand what it really means and, more importantly, which benefits accrue from the cloud and which from what you put in that cloud. This is not a new problem. We went through the same marketing gyrations when we were all excited about OnDemand software, and Software as a Service (SaaS) before that. We saw the same general confusion when people started selling Services Oriented Architecture (SOA) as an improvement over Active Server Pages (ASP). Battle of the buzzwords, one could conclude. But that’s not totally it. There are actual technology enhancements hiding behind each of these terms. Some are more subtle than others, but once they move out of the software engineering or R&D departments and over to marketing, they get reduced to whatever sound bite is most likely to gain traction in the marketplace. The danger here, of course, is that companies will begin to believe that their buzzword is the innovation. That’s never the case. We’re seeing quite a bit of that floating in and out of the cloud right now. Jacob (Gaffney, my editor) sent me an interesting piece of SPAM e-mail just this morning. Another company marketing a “private cloud” for kids, where everything would be safe and no one would ruthlessly rip away a child’s innocence. Hundreds of words, many of them buzzwords, and not a single comment about what the company will actually put in this private cloud, other than it would be warm and fuzzy, safe and sound. This company will probably get funding, too. A quick trip to their webpage gives one access to more marketing speak, the promise that all basic services are free (though no mention of what they actually are) and an invitation to sign up and provide another data point to the company’s investors. And what do the site’s visitors get in return? Well, a visit to the cloud, of course. A huge welcome message fills the company’s home page. This will probably work fairly well for people who have no idea that the cloud is simply a cluster of web servers sitting behind a node on the Internet, which, by the way, is exactly what the internet has been since the very beginning of its existence. The only difference between the so-called cloud computing of today and the original Internet is that users can now store their own software on these servers and execute it on their local computers through a web browser instead of simple HTML and little applets designed to run on those early browsers. By that way, that’s not an insignificant advancement in computing. But no one is talking about how virtualization evolved out of screen scraping software to provide a user experience similar in most respects to that provided by software on a local machine or a local area network even though it’s delivered through a wide area network, like the Internet. No, instead, they just say, “Welcome to the Cloud,” like that’s what makes it cool. To me, that’s like welcoming someone in off the street in front of my office and then releasing the confetti and striking up the band. “Welcome to the atmosphere! Smell that air? You’re breathing bona fide atmosphere, my friend. Drink it in! Our basic services are all free! Fill out this form so I can impress my investors.” That’s a little too P.T. Barnum for me. I couldn’t care less about the cloud. It means nothing to me. Sure, having your software distributed across a server farm in a secure environment with anywhere access and automatic load balancing with seamless cutover in the event of a disaster is great. Knowing that server virtualization is allowing the data center managers to squeeze the most performance out of every server in the farm is fine and dandy. This is all great, but it’s also all commoditized. Data centers are not the source of competitive advantage. They are a basic requirement for cloud-based computing. Everyone in the game has to have one and they’re all pretty much the same, if they’re any good at all. At the end of the day, it’s the software you put in your cloud that makes all of the difference. Any time a company spends more time talking about the cloud than the software, I know I’m just talking to another clown—or someone who thinks I’m one.