Many Still Cloudy on the Definition of Cloud Computing

Jan 22, 2010

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While it may be assumed that most professionals in the business technology industry have a general concept of cloud computing, an August 2009 survey by Proofpoint, a provider of SaaS email security, email archiving, and data loss-prevention solutions, found that may not be the case. Many IT professionals are still confused about the term's actual meaning.

With help from Osterman Research, a provider of market research, cost modeling, and benchmarking services, Proofpoint put the question to IT professionals: "When I hear the term ‘cloud computing,' I am generally confused given the many definitions." While 52% answered "no," 33% believe cloud computing is more hype than substance, and 24% "weren't sure." In addition, 24% of respondents believe their CEO would be able to define cloud computing, while 59% said their CEO would fail to answer correctly. Though these statistics clearly show there is confusion surrounding cloud computing, the questions of why there is so much uncertainty and why companies are so hesitant to move their data onto a cloud remains up in the air.

Michael Osterman, analyst for Osterman Research, believes that one cause for the confusion is that "terms such as SaaS and cloud computing tend to be used interchangeably." Keith Crosley, director of market development for Proofpoint, agrees that a lack of concrete information leads to confusion about the two terms. While the two are generally the same, "SaaS often refers to a specific application or solution deployed in an on-demand way. Cloud computing, in general, often refers to the general technique of using on-demand resources," explains Crosley. By giving cloud computing an all-encompassing definition, customers are often misled regarding what they can and cannot do in the cloud.

The desire to be in complete control of data is another strong deterrent for many companies. Forty-three percent responded "yes" when asked if they felt that "cloud computing is less secure than managing things in-house." "With large enterprises especially, there is an issue of control. Traditionally, enterprise IT guys have data on premises, so there is a perception that I have more control. Our contention is that it doesn't actually have to be the case," explains Crosley. There is also trepidation regarding recouping data if a company chooses to switch vendors. "There is a concern about if we want to switch services, am I going to be able to get my data back," says Osterman.

If a company chooses to move certain branches of its IT functions to a cloud, like moving on-premise email security deployment to a cloud-based solution, the savings will add up within the IT budget, explains Crosley. The savings, though appetizing to executives, has created a surprising concern on the part of IT departments. When asked the question: "If we implemented cloud-based services, many of our IT staff members would perceive that our company was preparing to lay them off," 47% of respondents answered "yes." "On a very basic level, IT people fear cloud computing because it represents a turf battle," says Osterman. The current economic status certainly contributes to this concern. "The economic climate is actually putting a lot of pressure on IT professionals to outsource more functions. There is this perception that IT professionals have that they are going to cloud themselves out of a job," explains Crosley.

According to Osterman and Crosley, all of these concerns can be eliminated with the correct approach on the part of vendors. "The first thing that we tell people is that not all clouds are created equal and to look at different components," says Crosley. "IT professionals still need some education and as a vendor you have to guide the prospect through the process." Osterman agrees that cloud vendors must take responsibility for education prospective clients. "Vendors really need to speak to the business side of the house and then talk to the IT side of the house. The key is really the education component." To put clients at ease, vendors can provide services such as building a business model with companies, allowing for a trial run of a solution, or explaining hybrid cloud options-such as Proofpoint's SHIELD solution, which Crosley explains is a cloud-based service that performs frontline anti-spam and connection management services "in the cloud" and then sends a much cleaner stream of email to any on-premises appliance for deeper content analysis. Customers need to realize that not everything has to be done in the cloud.

While there is still a fair amount of confusion surrounding the definition of cloud computing, the fact that professionals have an opinion at all shows there is at least interest regarding cloud computing and its benefits. "We found that there is an understanding that cloud computing will save money. A lot of people can name a vendor but haven't done any in-depth research," explains Osterman. This acknowledgement shows that the odds may be tipping in the cloud's favor in the near future. "There is a lot of movement toward cloud computing," says Osterman. Crosley seconds this notion, adding, "Definitely attitudes are maturing a little bit," and with the right information, cloud computing will become a more-viable option for small and large businesses alike.