There is a great deal of buzz in the IT and business worlds about cloud computing or simply “the cloud”. There is a good chance you already use or have already used cloud software, possibly without even realizing it. Because the terminology for this new arena is developing quickly, you may not have a firm grasp on what cloud computing is and what the terminology surrounding it means. This is a brief look at some of the more popular cloud terms and what they mean.

1. Cloud – An application, tool set, platform, or operating system hosted on a remote server. Downloads or local installations are usually not required. Both the software and the data are stored on the remote server. Because it is connected to the Internet rather than a company’s local intranet, its users can access it from anywhere in the world.

Remotely hosted software is not something new, but referring to its presence as “the cloud” has become a standard way to identify it. Because the terminology is somewhat vague, almost any online application or service could be considered “cloud”. Everything from your web-based email (i.e. Gmail or Yahoo Mail) to advanced Content Delivery Networks could be labeled as cloud services.

2. Software as a Service (SaaS) – Cloud software sold on a subscription or other type of service plan is often called SaaS. It is still completely remotely hosted, and the service provider handles all service, upgrades, and maintenance. Like the cloud computing, the concept of SaaS is not new, but the terminology has been applied as the concept became more widely practiced, mostly to distinguish it from the standard vendor purchase -> local installation -> upgrade model used by most businesses.

The most important distinction between SaaS and Cloud computing is that SaaS refers to the licensing used for cloud services. Rather than paying a traditional per-seat license, site license, or flat fee, you pay for access to the remote applications. If you decided to discontinue the service, your access is disconnected. This presumably means that the cloud provider would eventually discard your data unless you made arrangements to retrieve it.

3. Hybrid Cloud – When part of the software and/or data is hosted locally and the other portion is remotely hosted, the setup is referred to as a hybrid cloud. Because many companies have resisted moving their operations to the cloud, service providers came up with hybrid clouds to alleviate some of their concerns, such as data privacy and flexibility with manipulating the software to fit their needs.

4. Cloud Platform – This is usually a set of tools packaged together to make it easy for customers to create or host their own cloud applications. Sometimes the tools will include a server operating system, a web server, a database server, programming tools, and some type of system to tie them all together. In some cases, it may be difficult to distinguish a cloud platform for a dedicated managed server like those from

5. Content Delivery Network (CDN) – Websites that have a great deal of content may opt to use a CDN to distribute the content around the world. A CDN usually has globally-dispersed servers that can deliver images, video, and even cached documents faster and using less bandwidth and energy. CDNs normally charge based on space/bandwidth usage.

6. Cloudsourcing – Rather than having normal IT services that handle support and maintenance, a cloud service provides handles your IT needs.

7. Private cloud – In this case, the software is still accessible to all of its users, but the server and/or its applications belong to the company that uses it. It is not open to the public for general registration and subscriptions like other cloud services. In most cases, the cloud provider will still provide the maintenance, support, and upgrades, but they are generally tailored specifically for the organization that uses them.

Examples of cloud providers and their services:

  • Google – Google Apps (Gmail, Docs, Calendar, etc.)
  • Amazon – Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  • Microsoft – Windows Azure Platform
  • IBM – IBM Smart Business
  • Red Hat – Red Hat Cloud Foundations
  • Sales Force – The Sales Cloud

As the concepts and services mature, it will be easier to pinpoint how businesses and IT professionals will use the terms. For now, you may see some used interchangeably or even see some providers offer their own proprietary terminology.