What is the cloud? Three little words: As-A-Service

I’ve been talking to a few people recently about what this cloud stuff I’ve been doing is really all about. Isn’t it just some marketing hype? If I set up some servers have I just created a cloud? Isn’t ‘cloud’ just another word for ‘Internet’?

Clearly it is a marketing term; witness Microsoft’s embarrassing and somewhat desperate attempt to brand nearly everything they do and sell as ‘cloud’. And there are many ways to set up a ‘private’ or ‘hybrid’ cloud on your own servers, some of which have been around for years and have been re-badged to appease the marketeers.

But what I see, what excites me about what we do, is so much more than the hype. To me the cloud is a computing platform defined by those three little words: as-a-service.

Having spent a professional lifetime building large-scale enterprise systems from the ground up it is mind-boggling to me that I can integrate an apparently infinite amount of versioned, replicated, backed up and edge-cached storage into our system with nothing more than a credit card and a surprisingly small amount of coding. And Amazon S3/Cloudfront is the least sophisticated of the services we utilise.

As-a-service I can deploy to a powerful application platform, complete with user management, sophisticated security, reporting, and more (force.com). Or I can deploy web applications built on Ruby on Rails (Herokusoon to support Clojure for FP fans) or Java (Amazon Elastic Beanstalk or Google App Engine). I can store and manipulate data, send bulk email, instrument and report on my services, the list is growing daily.

As-a-service: as I need it, paying for only what I use, with scalability, availability, security and performance all built in.

And it’s this as-a-service nature that I believe makes ‘the cloud’ a truly different and fundamentally better place to build software. The vision of Service Oriented Architecture is finally being realised but not in terms of the truly dreadful SOAP and WSDL that were bound too-tightly into the concept, or  auto-discoverable service white-pages, or centrally-controlled service architecture that simply re-packaged much of the distributed objects thinking into distributed services.

The as-a-service nature of the cloud creates a free market where service providers compete to capture our attention and take our money. To do this the emphasis isn’t on standardisation or ‘discoverability’ but on simplicity, effectiveness (compare the wonderful JSON with SOAP) and value. The ‘mash-up’ approach to service integration pioneered by web developers is an increasingly viable approach for building large-scale, enterprise-strength systems.

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