Wednesday, 24 April 2013

On the definitions of terms

This morning, on my walk to work, saw a tweet in my feed mentioning a new service built on BitTorrent, called BitTorrent Sync. Fully encrypted, the blogger in question called it “Dropbox without the cloud”.

I just about tripped over my own feet.

The term “cloud” has very specific semantics in networking and computing, and it annoys me more every time I see it misused to sell something. There couldn’t possibly be a more cloud-like implementation of cloud storage than by using BitTorrent. By distributing the data all across the cloud, you really are just dropping your bits on the cloud, and picking them up later.

The Cloud, quite simply, any and all of the networks you connect to, but don’t control. Most often, network cut sheets use a cloud to represent the Internet as a whole. It’s an opaque region of the ether that may have your systems on the other side, or it might just be used to represent the source of incoming requests to your services. It may also be used to represent the networks between you and a network API with a specific, known endpoint (like, for example, Dropbox!).

Any x-As-A-Service service is fundamentally a cloud service, because it operates on on a network outside of your control. Dropbox is a cloud service. Netflix is, and you’d better believe BitTorrent is, too. Dropbox exists on a readily quantifiable set of servers, but this BitTorrent Sync product isn’t nearly so measurable—your data could literally be anywhere within the cloud.

For the sake of comparison and clarification, what would be a “Dropbox without the cloud”? A local server within your network that provides similar data mirroring. This would likely only ever be useful in an office environment full of thin clients (or tablets) where no one necessarily has the same desk from day to day. This, however, largely doesn’t exist in most office environments. I have a laptop computer at Kijiji that I bring with me when I need to work in a different room, or if I need to travel. And if, for any reason, I can’t bring the computer with me, I can access it through SSH, anywhere within the corporate network. “Dropbox without the cloud”, in our ecosystem of cheap, portable devices is fundamentally meaningless.

So please, if you&rsquo&re selling something, and want to refer to The Cloud, use the term correctly. This industry is one based on precision of language, and “cloud services” is vague enough already, without being used as its own antonym!

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