Smash and Grab Semantics: Cloud vs. Hosted

September 27, 2010

What is “cloud” computing, and how does it differ from “hosted?” The question emerged once again recently among the Enterprise Irregulars, as one Irregular used the terms interchangeably and another objected. Neither, however, wanted to get into semantics (that is, what the words “cloud” and “hosted” actually mean), so they agreed that the problem is knotty and went on with their lives.

These are both sensible, intelligent people who make sane decisions. But I want to point out that something has happened to both of them. Both of them, I think, have become victims of what I’ll call “smash and grab semantics,” a practice where companies will take a term that they find attractive and use it to describe something that they do. In some cases, this is pretty legitimate–I think both Salesforce and Amazon can use the word, “cloud,” without arguing about it too much–but in the case of “smash and grab semantics,” there’s a real distortion; something of value has been taken when they do it.

In other contexts, we regard smash and grab semantics as pretty reprehensible, because something quite real is at stake. I was talking last night to the editor of a newspaper in a country that calls itself “democratic,” but isn’t. He goes to court regularly and regularly ends up in jail, though not usually for too long. The last time he was hauled into court, the judge began the proceedings by asking, “Do you stand behind the lies that you just published?” As far as he’s concerned, when a regime practices smash and grab semantics on the word, “democratic,” it helps this regime get away with putting him in jail. And he should know.

So, is there a distortion in the use of the term, “cloud” vs. the term, “hosted?” And does this distortion give the people who’ve grabbed the term something they shouldn’t have? I think so. The plain fact is that cloud is a lot cheaper than hosted, a lot cheaper, because cloud applications or services have been engineered to share resources efficiently, something that hosted applications or services can’t do, because they’ve had to be rewritten from the ground up.

So when people offer something hosted and make their customers think it’s cloud, they’re giving people the idea that they’ve done the homework and were providing the advantages of efficient resource sharing when they haven’t in fact.

The details matter, of course, which is why my two very smart colleagues didn’t want to get into a complicated argument. With hosted applications there is always some resource sharing, by definition. But the plain fact is that whatever the details, something that’s engineered to be cloud is roughly ten times cheaper than hosted. So whatever the details, people who call themselves “cloud,” are doing a bit of smash and grab.

So how do you combat smash and grab semantics? Fortunately, the answer to this question has been known for a 100 years. You don’t let them get away with it. Despite the fact that they want you to use the term they’re using, you don’t go along. George Orwell put it better than anyone in “Politics and the English Language.” I am paraphrasing. If you want “language [to be] an instrument for expressing, and not just concealing or preventing though,” you must “choose…the phrases that best cover the meaning.”

Don’t get me wrong. If somebody says their offering is “cloud” or “SaaS” or “on-demand” when it is actually hosted, this is smash and grab, but only on a small scale. It is not the same as using the word “democracy” to describe a tyranny. One is good, aggressive marketing; the other is morally confused. But since the technique used–smash and grab semantics–is the same, you combat both in the same way You use the right word.

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2 Responses to “Smash and Grab Semantics: Cloud vs. Hosted”


  1. […] Viewed from that broader perspective, I don’t see Virgin’s, and many other similar incidents, as Cloud issues at all. I don’t even think it is a “Hosted” issue, though that came up as a question in the Enterprise Irregulars’ discussion of the Virgin Blue situation, as another fellow Enterprise Irregular, David Dobrin, writes. […]


  2. […] Viewed from that broader perspective, I don’t see Virgin’s, and many other similar incidents, as Cloud issues at all. I don’t even think it is a “Hosted” issue, though that came up as a question in the Enterprise Irregulars’ discussion of the Virgin Blue situation, as another fellow Enterprise Irregular, David Dobrin, writes. […]


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