Forget cloud vs edge. It's the connections, stupid

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 6, 2018
Thinking in terms of cloud vs edge is a false dichotomy. Connections are at the heart of cloud computing, leading to XaaS and frictionless enterprise

Connected modern world concept © James Thew -
(© James Thew -
Are we nearing the end of the era of cloud computing? Even Google has decided to start supporting on-premise and edge computing. Many commentators have argued that the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the consequent need to have intelligent computing in edge devices means there will be less of a concentration of compute resources in the cloud. My view however is that to argue this is the end of cloud computing is to set up a false dichotomy. It all comes down to your definition of cloud.

As I've listened to this debate I've realized that what I mean by the term cloud computing is different from what other people take it to mean. People often use words in subtly different ways, and in the case of technology buzzwords, those variations in meaning often become very broad. In part that's because the concepts themselves are evolving and so each person's interpretation depends on the context in which they encounter the term. It doesn't help that some people wilfully distort the meaning of an emerging buzzword to advance specific agendas, such as validating an existing product — an act so common in the realm of cloud that it has become known as cloudwashing.

More than a relocation exercise

One frequent source of misunderstanding is that we often define new concepts in terms of what we already know. Just as early motor cars were known as horseless carriages, so people have often interpreted cloud computing as simply a matter of transferring computing from its on-premise origins into Internet data centers. For almost twenty years now I've been warning that this is a gross over-simplification of cloud:

[O]utsourcing applications to Internet-based data centers is more than a relocation exercise. The Internet is creating an entirely new computing environment that demands a fundamental change in the way software is designed and used.

My argument back then, and still today, is that the core of the definition of cloud computing is that it is connected. The transition is not from on-premise to cloud, but from disconnected to connected. If that was a novel idea back at the turn of the century, it seems pretty obvious nowadays. But the notion that cloud is the opposite of on-premise has taken such a hold that people now seem to assume that if something has a physical location it's somehow not in the cloud — even if it's connected.

I found myself taken aback recently by a tweet from Vijay Vijayasankar responding to Den Howlett's tweet of one of my headlines:

To my mind, there's no distinction. The cloud is the network. The very origin of the term, when the image of a cloud was used in diagrams to represent an external network, expresses that oneness. So if we are now connecting up edge devices and processing some of the intelligence there, then it's just a matter of the cloud becoming more distributed. Some nodes on the cloud network have less compute resources and bandwidth — let's call them edge devices. Other nodes have huge compute resources and massive bandwidth — we call them data centers.

Connection at the heart

To answer my opening question, therefore, my view is that the era of cloud computing is merely entering a new, more mature phase. Cloud computing and its methods have become mainstream and are rippling back out to transform the nature of on-premise computing. The result is a distributed form of cloud computing in which every participant in the network is connected by default and acts accordingly. Disconnection, if it happens, is a transient phase rather than the norm.

This technology is now enabling new business models and human behaviors, as here too connection becomes the default. IoT is often associated with the term Everything-as-a-Service or XaaS — which at diginomica we prefer to pronounce as two syllables, ie 'X-ass'. Connection is at the heart of XaaS enabling a virtuous cycle of engagement, monitoring and improvement — continuous innovation that delivers on-demand results in an engaged manner to customers or consumers.

Connection is also at the heart of another concept that I find myself increasingly referring to. Frictionless enterprise defines a networked business architecture that harnesses connected digital technologies to deliver results faster and more effectively.

So in my mind, 'cloud' is a shorthand term for the connected digital architecture that enables all of this transformation. It's not a contrast to the way we used to do computing. It's the foundation for how we do the future.

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