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As they explain cloud computing, providers try to duck a war of words

The lack of standard definitions to explain cloud computing leads to more than Twitter flame wars. Everybody loses when inconsistent language confuses customers.

The lack of standard definitions that explain cloud computing and other cloud services can lead to more than Twitter flame wars. Everybody loses when customers get confused. When one provider markets a service as private cloud, another brands the same offering as public cloud, and yet another calls it virtual private cloud, customers will get cynical.

"Service providers are going to have to get a lot more specific and transparent about what the service is," said Keao Caindec, chief marketing officer of the cloud business unit at Johannesburg-based Dimension Data. "I'm just waiting for someone to launch Service as a Service. It's getting that absurd."

Although cloud providers know customer education is essential, some say it's too easy (and counterproductive) to waste time negotiating vocabulary and miss the opportunity to highlight what really closes a sale: how the service meets a customer's business objectives.

"You don't start by talking about how many VMs you can spin up or the square footage in your data centers. We do eventually [talk about that], but that's not what makes the sale," said Michael Bucheit, CEO of FiberMedia Group, a data center operator and cloud provider based in Secaucus, N.J. "It's really important we break down the vagueness of the language and get down to the business issues."

Focus on business drivers, not semantics

As with many new technologies, it will take time for the industry to adopt standard language to explain cloud computing. But the concept of cloud computing is so multidimensional -- representing not just technology, but also various billing and business models -- that its definition has almost become subjective.

I'm just waiting for someone to launch Service as a Service. It's getting that absurd.

Keao Caindec
Chief Marketing Officer, Dimension Data

"There are providers that will say, 'I have a private cloud' or 'I have a virtual private cloud,' but it's really a public cloud offering that comes with a firewall and is still riding shared infrastructure," Caindec said.

This is an especially difficult issue of for large cloud-providers, Caindec said. Dimension Data attempts to be consistent in its service descriptions, but it's hard to know how well its 15,000 employees have maintained that consistency in conversations with its 6,000 clients, he said.

"The terminology is always a challenge when it comes to cloud," Caindec said. "But rather than spend a lot of time trying to share our own definitions of a public cloud, private cloud, virtual private cloud or hosted private cloud, we talk more about use cases to help the client figure out what it is they're trying to do and communicate how we can help them."

At FiberMedia, Bucheit also avoids starting a conversation with a glossary or asking customers whether they want public or private cloud services. Instead, he quizzes customers about what they're trying to accomplish, how mission-critical an application is and what their security or compliance requirements are.

"All of those questions are critical to define the profile of a customer's needs, which in turn drives the IT architecture -- not the other way around," Bucheit said.

Even among equipment vendors, the industry's inconsistent vocabulary has forced marketing strategies to adapt.

"Given the confusion around the term 'cloud,' we tend to use the words 'virtualization' and 'virtual infrastructure' more," said Eric Chiu, president and founder of Silicon Valley-based HyTrust, which sells virtual security appliances for enterprise private clouds. "It eliminates that confusion."

Cloud providers rely on NIST to explain cloud computing

In the absence of any formal missive from the major technical standards bodies (such as the IEEE or IETF) to define and explain cloud computing, many cloud providers are relying on the definition written by the U.S. government's National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Unlike global standards bodies, NIST's standards are only canonical for U.S. federal agencies.

Dimension Data has aligned the nomenclature of its cloud services with NIST's cloud computing definition. The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), a global nonprofit industry group, also said the CSA would align with NIST's definition "to bring coherence and consensus around a common language so we can focus on use cases rather than semantic nuance."

Mumbai-based network operator Tata Communications, which has several cloud services in its home markets, also uses the NIST language to explain cloud computing, according to John Landau, senior vice president of technology and service evolution at Tata.

Although "it's been a struggle" to avoid confusing customers that come in with various interpretations of cloud computing, standardizing Tata's service descriptions on NIST has made those conversations easier, Landau said. He also expects the terminology to continue to evolve.

"That's the case for any language and especially technology," added Landau."You need to have repeatable terms, so we usually do come right back to NIST or the Cloud Security Alliance and say, 'This is our reference model.' [Customers] usually get that."

Providers debate vocabulary and explain cloud computing less often

The good news, according to several cloud providers, is that this challenge has dissipated over time. Cloud providers say they've noticed a promising trend in the past few months: Fewer customers want providers to reconcile terms and explain cloud computing. They want to focus on the business drivers for cloud adoption.

Wendy White, vice president marketing for Tier 3, an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) provider based in Bellevue, Wash., has seen the conversation shift at trade shows recently.

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"At this trade show last summer, there was a lot of 'What is it? What's a private cloud? What's a hybrid cloud? Where do you guys sit in the market?'" White said. "But in the last couple months at trade shows, we don't hear the 'what' anymore. We hear the 'how.' The conversation is starting to shift."

Landau noticed the same gradual change with Tata customers.

"When we first launched, we would include the NIST [visual model] in all of our presentations and place it very close to the front," he said. "We used to do that in almost every single discussion to align the language, and I was just reflecting a few weeks ago on the fact that we've taken them out of the [slideshow] decks. It wasn't a conscious decision or anything. We just didn't need [to go through] it anymore."

The language barrier has been less of an issue for San Mateo, Calif.-based cloud broker Appirio, whose customers have already been educated by its cloud provider partners. Even so, Appirio's senior director of strategy and business operations, Nara Balakrishna, agreed that customers have a more uniform understanding of cloud services.

"A couple years ago … we would spend the first half [of the sales pitch] explaining who we were and what the public cloud was, and we really haven't had to do that in the past year," Balakrishna said. "It seems like the market we're targeting has gotten beyond that point."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, Site Editor.

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