When my 60-some year old mother-in-law asked me what “cloud computing” was, I was suprised. Suddenly, it seemed, a buzz-word that those of us in our IT subculture had been using for a while had gone mainstream. (I remember having the same reaction when I heard a news announcer say someone was wearing “bling”.)

Sometimes it’s nice, though, to be reminded that terms are not so obvious to people who might not be immersed in technology day and night. I ran across a nice video and article on CNN.com that explains that “cloud” computing is not “light and fluffy”, but that data “in the cloud” still sits in brick and mortar server farms somewhere, even if it’s not longer on your personal hardware. Whereas this might seem like a no-brainer to us, it’s true that the term “cloud” is, well, nebulous, (as nebulous as nebulous clouds!) and people don’t really know where their data goes when it’s saved.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/11/04/cloud.computing.hunt/index.html

The most interesting part of the article to me was this:

But the more I mulled over my failing scavenger hunt, the more I thought that maybe I was asking the wrong question. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where my data is, just that there’s some way for me to get a sense of how well it’s managed. Still, without information, it’s hard to know who to trust. That makes it easy to fall back on flimsy methods of comparison, like going with a brand you already know. I’m sure this is how I ended up with so much data on Google’s servers. It’s a huge company. Billions use their search. Tens of millions save files with Gmail. They’ve got to know what’s up, right? That’s exactly what the big cloud companies hope you will think. Microsoft’s general manager of Windows Live, Brian Hall, told me brand recognition is the best way for people to compare services. “Consumers, they don’t really care if there are 9,000 data centers or two data centers as long as they have confidence that we’re going to protect their data and they’ll have access to it when they want to have access to it,” he said. (In case you’re wondering, Hall said Microsoft has “between 10 and 100 data centers” worldwide. Really specific.)

This coincides with a discussion I had today with a co-worker about Microsoft’s BPOS service. While we understand that some companies may never transition to a paid-service-in-the-cloud model because of the sensitivity of the data being stored, more and more things like e-mail and document storage will become commoditized. A commodity is something that’s pretty much the same wherever you go, so the great determining factor becomes price. If even the price is similar, as the Microsoft person said in the quote above, decisions start being made on secondary factors, whether that’s real value (such as better customer service) or perceived value (such as brand recognition).

It will be interesting, in the coming years, to see how the big companies can create brand loyalty around their cloud services.

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