Take a look at this graph from Google Trends. It shows the relative interest over time for a pair of terms. The blue indicates web hosting, and the red indicates cloud computing. Google Trends is a blunt tool and we shouldn’t take it too seriously, but it illustrates the motivation behind a marketing technique known as cloud washing.
Cloud washing is a — more or less deceptive — attempt to rebrand old hosting services as cloud to take advantage of the huge interest in cloud technology. To take just one example, many hosting companies have rebranded traditional virtual private server hosting plans as cloud servers. In fact, they’re nothing of the sort. Both use virtualization, but it takes more than that to be a true cloud platform.
How can businesses determine whether a vendor’s offering is a true cloud or the result of cloud washing? I use this simple heuristic: true clouds are elastic, on-demand, and programmable.
To be elastic a platform has to be able to scale both up and down quickly. The servers that make up the cloud platform can be deployed in minutes and discarded in minutes. Scaling can be achieved via a web interface or an API, but the important point is that launching a new server onto a cloud platform should be as easy as choosing the server you want, deploying it, and waiting a few minutes for it to be ready. When you’re finished with the server, discarding it should be just as simple.
Cloud washed services can’t do this. You might be able to deploy a new VPS relatively quickly, but most of these pseudo-cloud services have a monthly billing cycle which means there’s no scaling advantage in the other direction.
Public cloud platforms offer on-demand access to compute and storage resources with metered billing. Cloud users pay for the resources they use, billed by the minute or the hour.
Traditional platforms can’t do this, and the difference in cost efficiency is stark. Consider the case of an eCommerce store in the run up to the holiday season. With a cloud platform, the store could bring up new web servers behind the load balancer to handle peak traffic, and then reduce the deployment as traffic wanes — paying only for the resources they consume.
On a traditional hosting platform, they’d have to deploy sufficient redundant servers well in advance of traffic spikes. They’d be idle for most of the time, but the store owner would still be paying for them. After the holiday season, all those idle servers would still have to be paid for until the contract expires.
True cloud platforms provide an API so that users can programmatically control their cloud deployment. The web interfaces of cloud platforms are powerful, but the most flexible way to control a cloud platform is to write programs that manage the deployment according to whatever conditions the client needs.
With the eCommerce store we just discussed, the owners might create a service that hooks into their load monitoring software and the cloud platform’s API, automatically deploying and destroying the web servers as as traffic grows or shrinks.
Needless to say, cloud-washed platforms can’t do this. If you want more servers, you get on the phone or laboriously deploy and configure one at a time via a web interface.
Cloud washing is a testament to the impact cloud computing has had on the infrastructure hosting industry over the last few years, but don’t be mislead, choose a real public cloud that fulfills the promise of the technology.