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The Cloud… What does it even mean?

Today, the phrase “The Cloud” is showing up in ads with annoying frequency. It’s a trendy buzzword, but nobody seems to agree what it means.

Let’s see if we can come up with a definition of “The Cloud.” Then we’ll look at how companies are using that phrase in marketing and see if we can make any sense out of it.

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The way most companies are using it today, The Cloud is snappy marketing shorthand for cloud computing. So what’s cloud computing? Merriam-Webster.com defines cloud computing as:

“the practice of storing regularly used computer data on multiple servers that can be accessed through the Internet.”

I think that definition is imprecise. It limits the idea of the “cloud” to storage—but in practice, cloud computing is also used for processing. Which brings us to a broader definition from Wikipedia:

“Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet).”

Of course, by this broad definition, you could argue that everything on the Internet constitutes “The Cloud.”

What do the experts have to say about this? Let’s look at a 2011 paper from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that’s actually called The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing. It begins:

“Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

Good effort, but that’s a pretty technical definition, and it’s been soundly ignored.

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You only have to look at a few ads for tech companies to realize that nobody agrees what “The Cloud” means.

In 2010, Microsoft introduced Windows 7 with the line, “To The Cloud!” The ads showed regular consumers storing stuff like photos and documents remotely. The campaign didn’t last long, but it did help establish the casual usage of “The Cloud.”

Similarly, Apple uses a variation of “The Cloud” with the name of their consumer service for storing data on remote servers: iCloud.

* * * *

While Apple and Microsoft use “cloud” to describe consumer backup services, other tech companies reserve “cloud” for professional computing services—stuff used by website builders, IT managers and computer scientists. (Noteworthy: Dropbox, another consumer storage service, doesn’t use the word “cloud” much at all.) Amazon has the Elastic Compute Cloud, Google offers Google Cloud Platform and Oracle has Oracle Cloud (which was recently endorsed by none other than Iron Man himself).


* * * *

Then we have Rackspace, which is running an ad campaign with the headline, “Rackspace just open-sourced the cloud.”


That line makes my head hurt. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And it’s so jam-packed with trendy words (note the use of “just,” the current favorite way to suggest breathless urgency) that it feels more engineered than written—a soulless, manipulative headline made not to communicate information but to trigger a predictable reaction.

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And finally, here’s a Delta ad advertising the availability of Wi-Fi on the airline’s planes. It says, “The most planes in the cloud. More than 3,400 flights with Wi-Fi every day.”

Delta Cloud Ad

So, with a pretty good pun about air travel, Delta’s definition brings us back to the dumbest, most obvious definition we have:

“The Cloud” is “The Internet.”

If you start to write something with “The Cloud” in it, stop and consider if your readers would be better served if you wrote “The Internet” instead.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising, Language, Technology, Words

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