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Sharpening a Cloudy Vision

Clarifying definitions depends on users' perspectives.
By Judith Markowitz - Posted Sep 1, 2010
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There was once a time, not long ago, when there were few clouds, Sun held a dominant position in the sky, and a Big Blue sky wasn’t unusual. True, rainmakers have always been highly desirable, but forecasts of stormy weather and the sight of clouds on the horizon would always make any company’s outlook appear gloomy. 

Today you have to consult an Oracle to find the Sun, and many companies are reaching for the rapidly gathering clouds that are filling the heavens. We are surrounded by clouds—both public and private. At the same time, the meaning of cloud has become, well, cloudy. 

To disperse that haziness, I consulted representatives from three companies in different segments of our industry: technology and applications (Dena Skrbina of Nuance Communications), platform (Jonathan Taylor of Voxeo), and telecommunications (Jay Wilpon of AT&T). I asked them to explain cloud, cloud computing, software-as-a-service (SaaS), and hosting.

Cloud: According to Taylor, this term evolved from enterprise network diagrams that drew a cloud to represent everything outside of the organization’s operations, such as data or telephony networking services. He believes the current meaning of cloud remains true to its origins: Cloud refers to “a hosted platform or service run by an external service provider” and a private cloud is “a similar cloud that runs within an enterprise’s own network and behind its own firewall, often by an internal service provider.”  

While the Internet is a likely component of a cloud, it isn’t equivalent because “clouds can also include traditional telephony, private data services, server capacity, and software solutions.” In contrast, Skrbina views “the cloud” as synonymous to the Internet, but recognizes that the term means different things to different people. “Sometimes a customer is locked into another definition, so [Nuance goes] with that,” she says. 

Cloud Computing: Skrbina’s definition focuses on services: “Cloud computing is applications delivered as services leveraging the cloud, and the hardware and systems software in the data centers that provide those services.” Taylor emphasizes server capacity: “Cloud computing is about delivering either raw server capacity or server capacity bundled with specific functionality, such as IVR. Where clouds can generally include anything, cloud computing specifically tends to be more about on-demand server resources.” Taking a user’s perspective, Wilpon defines cloud computing as massively scalable, virtual computing and storage that is provided as a service. You pay for it in the traditional utility model—as you use it.  

Hosting and SaaS: Taylor sees these terms as synonymous to cloud computing. “Hosting is an older term that exists in parallel to cloud computing and SaaS. They all refer to using either raw server capacity or server capacity for a specific functionality, such as IVR.” 

To my list Skrbina adds the concept of enterprise cloud computing, which, she says, is “a form of cloud computing with added security and reliability that is required for mission-critical, customer-care solutions.” 

Taylor delineates a hierarchy of cloud services that can be provided by different cloud-services providers:

• Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS): delivering and managing data networking and connectivity; 

Platform-as-a-service (PaaS): delivering and managing servers and associated resources, including application programming interfaces, provisioning, upgrades, and security; and

SaaS: delivering and managing applications.

“IaaS provides virtualized hardware that a client can rent to run any software on it,” Wilpon says. “PaaS provides a full platform solution, including hardware and a given software stack that customers can immediately use to install and run its applications on. SaaS provides a full software solution over the Internet, such as text-to-speech, automated speech recognition, and speaker recognition software, that a customer can immediately use without installing software and without worrying about hardware maintenance and support.” Applications built using those technologies could be part of the SaaS layer or, as is shown in the figure, reside above it.


Judith Markowitz, Ph.D., is president of J. Markowitz Consultants and a leading independent analyst in the speech and voice biometrics fields. She can be reached at judith@jmarkowitz.com.

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