All too often of late I see press releases from tech providers who are re-branding their old hosted services as “cloud” services. This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. There are some important differences between hosted services and a true cloud offering.
What’s a Hosted Service?
Hosted services are technology services offered to you or your company by a provider that hosts the physical servers running that service somewhere else. Access to the service is usually provided through a direct network connection that may or may not run via the Internet.
This isn’t a new idea. Hosted services date back to the early years of commercial computing, when companies would purchase processing time from mainframes hosted by other companies. These days hosted services generally take the form of more generic business applications including website hosting, email servers, off-site backups, data warehousing and that sort of thing.
Odds are, if you’re operating in the corporate space, you’re using at least one hosted service right now.
What’s a Cloud Service?
As the name “cloud” suggests, this is a somewhat nebulous concept. Strictly speaking, a cloud service is a hosted service that’s accessible over the Internet – a subset of hosted services. But is that really all there is to it?
I don’t believe that it is. I submit that a hosted service, even one accessible via the Internet, can’t be considered a real cloud solution unless it’s been built to capitalise on the new range of collaboration and interconnectivity that is inherent in the cloud.
Let’s look at an example: email.
We’re all familiar with the old standards of corporate email solutions like Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus. Although larger corporates will most often run their own instances of these locally in their internal datacentres, mid-size companies will usually outsource email provision on these tools to hosted service providers. The difference between hosted and local is literally just where the physical server sits – essentially there’s no distinction in functionality between the two.
Describing a hosted email solution such as these as a “cloud” service is probably a bit misleading. While it certainly satisfies the literal definition of a cloud service, Exchange and Lotus are essentially designed to run as internal services. Their access via the Internet is clumsy at best (try accessing Microsoft Outlook Webmail through Mozilla Firefox and you’ll see what I mean), and is clearly a tacked-on afterthought added to the tools in response to growing need.
Contrast this with a cloud-based email service like Google’s Gmail – an email solution born in the cloud and built to be accessed via the Internet. Gmail is equally at home on any computer and in any browser. It even supports outdated standards like POP3, allowing users to access their accounts from computers and applications that may be obsolete or less powerful (less-popular smartphone platforms, for example).
In addition to this, Gmail’s default interface is studded with extra connectivity tools like Gtalk (instant messaging) and Buzz (social networking) that are able to effortlessly connect to non-Google services through the use of open standards and APIs. More experienced users can connect their Gmail account up to Google’s other offerings like Docs and Calendar for an integrated cloud experience, allowing for a level of collaboration simply not achievable through old-fashioned hosted services.
And that’s the key-word: collaboration. The most popular cloud-based services are popular because they provide collaboration other tools don’t allow: an extra layer of interconnectivity between users and other systems that’s easy to use and inexpensive (or free) to buy.
These cloud-based tools: Gmail, Google Docs, DropBox, Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, YouTube and so on, are streaking ahead of their local and hosted predecessors – not only in corporate implementation, but also in adoption by private users – because they are built for the web and designed from the very beginning to work with the user and with each other. These are the tools that make the cloud what it is.
Connecting an internal solution to the web and calling it “cloud” is a bit like waterproofing a truck and calling it a submarine: It might technically fit the description, but it’s clearly not meant for that.
By Owen Swart, Technology analyst at Don’t Fear the Tech