How-To Geek

What is Cloud Computing and What Does This Stupid Buzzword Mean?

The other day a reader wrote in asking if cloud computing could help save his hard drive space, which made me realize that it’s time to talk about exactly what this moronic buzzword really means.

What is Cloud Computing?

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the definition for “Cloud Computing” is this incomprehensible piece of nonsense clearly written to be as confusing as possible:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

So what’s a definition for real people?

Cloud Computing = Web Applicationsimage

That’s all there is to it. If you’re using a web or internet-based application from a major provider like Google or Microsoft, you’re using cloud computing. Congrats!

Every web application that you’ve ever used, like Gmail, Google Calendar, Hotmail, SalesForce, Dropbox, and Google Docs, are based on “cloud computing”, because when you connect to one of these services, you’re really connecting to a massive pool of servers somewhere out there on the internet. The client doesn’t need to be a web browser, but that’s the direction everything is heading.

Think there’s more to it than that? Don’t believe me? Just listen to Larry Ellison, the CEO & co-founder of Oracle, talk about how moronic this term really is:

So Why Cloud Computing?

We’ve already established that it’s a pointless term that simply describes web applications, which have been around for a very long time—but in order to get businesses to start switching to web applications instead of self-hosted servers, the marketing types invented a new buzzword.

The reason why they used the word “cloud” in the buzzword is simple: in network diagrams, the internet is usually represented with a cloud in the middle of the drawing. Those marketing drones are inventive, aren’t they?


So basically the term itself is just a way for consultants and companies to sell more services in a shiny new package. Here’s a good illustration of how this works:


Comic by Geek and Poke

How Can Cloud Computing Help Me?

Since businesses everywhere are moving their applications to the web and coming out with new and interesting features accessible through your web browser, you’ll soon be able to access virtually anything from any browser on any PC, and the lines will blur between desktop and the internet.


Now that Microsoft has finally released the beta for Internet Explorer 9, which supports new web standards like HTML5 and uses hardware acceleration to make the whole experience speedy—every browser will finally be on the same footing. When Microsoft said that IE9 is going to change the web, they weren’t kidding—they were the only ones holding the web back with their anemic IE7 and IE8 browsers, not to mention the ancient IE6. And now the nightmare is finally almost over.

It’ll get even more interesting whenever Chrome OS is finally released, which is basically an entire operating system built around a web browser as the primary interface, with all of your applications as web applications instead of local—hopefully it will support web integration like IE9 does with the Windows 7 taskbar.

How Is Cloud Computing Different for Businesses?

If you’re in the IT world you’re probably scratching your head at this point and thinking that I’m oversimplifying the idea behind cloud computing, so let’s explain the real difference from the more technical side of things.

In the past, every company would run all of their applications on all of their own servers, hosted at their own location or data center. This obviously requires a lot of maintenance and money to keep everything running, upgraded, and secure.


From a business perspective, businesses can now move much of their computing to cloud services, which provide the same applications that you would install on your own servers, but now they are accessible over the internet for any of their customers. Have you read about companies switching to Google Docs? That’s a perfect example of companies switching from hosting their own local servers to using cloud computing instead.

But what if your company provides a service to others? You can also take advantage of cloud computing by creating applications that don’t run on your own servers, but actually utilize server resources provided by one of the big providers—Google has App Engine, Microsoft has Windows Azure, and Amazon has their EC2 framework.


Most of these services operate on a pay-for-resources basis—so your application only gets charged for the amount of CPU and network use that it actually uses—when your application is small and doesn’t have a lot of users, you don’t get charged much, but the benefit is that it can scale up to 10,000 users without any trouble (though you’ll be paying a lot more for the added CPU usage).

Still need more? Here’s a video that explains it with… little fluffy clouds.

Web Applications are the future. Cloud Computing is a stupid buzzword. Discuss.

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/14/10

Comments (50)

  1. Jackie

    Thank you for clearing that up for some people, I get this question everyday “Can I make a cloud for my facebook” It’s pisses me off, but I just answer “no”

  2. Sasa Stefanovic

    This is one of best explained topic on Internet. Maybe i will translate this to my blog on Serbian language, and will link it here, just because it’s so simple explained. Thanks !

  3. Terry Dunn

    Cloud computing is just another buzzword. What I think is exciting is the move towards web applications. Soon, most people won’t know where the apps they use are coming from, because everything will run from inside a browser window.


  4. Naval

    Nice explanation.
    I am for Web Applications.

  5. Susrich

    Thanks for this great articel. I bookmark it and will spread it.

    I wonder about the security. Where (in which country,under which laws, which company holds the server and where are they??) are my files stored und who can have a look at it? When I have my files on my hard drive (and no virus or something) I can decide who can have it to read. But what’s with the data I leave in the cloud, that foggy thing where everything is blurry, nothing really clear to see, continously changing its shape?

    You can read about the american government ready to surveil the internet-exchange of data worldwide, You can read about credit instituts collecting the data of people buying things with their credits cards and so on. You can read about Apple, Microsoft, Google never being fed up with data of people using their devices and apps, doing cloud-computing.

    I wonder about the security of my personal or my business-data in the cloud. I would really appreciate to get to know something about that topic. Thanks in advance.

  6. Andy Morgan

    I think a lot of people confuse cloud computing with cloud storage, which actually would affect HDD space (but is derived from the same annoying buzzword).
    I work in an office full of management speak, where new spreadsheets are ‘sense-checked’, we are ‘incentivised’ and must ‘touch-base’ etc…
    Imagine a world where managers just said what they meant!
    Thanks for this article, very helpful.

  7. robin

    nicely done. it’s a concept that’s as old as computing too. back in the 1960’s & ’70’s it was called “shared computing” and was considered the future of computing as it was then impossible to locally house a mainframe. same premise as today………….

  8. Danny

    Fifteen years ago the buzzword for the web was the “information superhighway”. Now it’s a quaint term that nobody ever uses. After the bubble burst in the early 2000s, the new buzzword was “web 2.0”, which is dying down as well. “Cloud computing” (and “social network”), too, shall pass.

  9. Jeremy Duffy

    I’ve wondered for the longest time if I’ve been missing something here or not. With an online OS and online applications, what the fork are you supposed to do when you’re NOT ONLINE!?

    Logic tells me that I won’t be able to work, won’t be able to play, or do any of the other things I so often do on a computer that don’t involve the Internet at all.

    Based on this logic, cloud computing is a gigantic waste of time (with some fairly specific excepted applications that actually do make sense).

    So…. am I missing something or is that pretty much all there is to it.

  10. jason

    Good explanation. It is a buzzword describing concepts that have been around for years. I think one fact you didn’t make as clear as possible is, it’s a “shared” environment. When Company A moves their email to the cloud for example, the data is stored in the same area as Company B, C, D, etc. Company A doesn’t get their own cloud. They are lumped in to a cloud with everyone else. It does bring up some concerns over security and privacy in my opinion and I thought it was important to note. I’m also not sure it’s the same for all “cloud” services but the few I worked with, it is.

  11. Keith Gentle

    Thank you very much for the clarification re Cloud Computing, I have been wondering what it was about for along time, glad you have sorted it!

  12. ed

    It seems that there won’t be an offline, that we’ll have to rent applications such as word-processing, spreadsheets, etc, from Microsoft, et al, and can only get access to such basics via online. Is that what users really want?

  13. Ryan whitman

    I built an Enterprise based on cloud computing open source tech and word of mouth. Discuss. O and this stupid buzzword is a fifty billion dollar industry.

  14. Cloud_Zone

    Great article. Explained the cloud extremely well. Also posted it on our twitter feed @cloud_zone .

  15. GilTempleton

    “Hey, you, get offa my…”

  16. Hugh Jorgen

    Yeah. Brilliant. Keep your financial documents and love letters under somebody ELSE’s control. And
    PAY them for it! DUH!

    Everybody is so busy arguing over desktop app vs. web app that it has never crossed their minds that one can build totally CLIENT-side BROWSER-powered apps. I got rid of most of my executables a long time ago, and just sat down and wrote replacements for them—word processor, diagram maker, flatfile data manipulation tools, image manipulation tools, invoice generators, legal document generators, yada-yada-yada. And the ONLY thing thing they need to run is Firefox, and I NEVER have to leave the browser environment—or even be online. And the heaviest footprint on any of them is 43kb.
    (Tetris comes in at 27kb—in a base64ed bookmarklet, no less—and is vastly superior to that lame piece of crap that comes with Ubuntu.)

    Try googling “You can’t do that with JavaScript”. ANYBODY who tells you *that* REALLY means “*I* can’t do that with JavaScript”.

    Well, enjoy your smarmy cloud AND your bloatware executables, folks, because I have absolutely no plans to ever release any of my stuff—not for free, and not for all the money in the world. Nothing personal, it’s just my way of levying a Willful Ignorance Tax. ROTFLMFAO!

  17. nathan m

    Jesus, people. It’s called “Cloud” because the internet has been represented by a cloud picture on every network diagram since UUNet dropped in the first DNS servers.

    The reason it’s not called “web applications” is that AWS or AppEngine are much more than just www. They don’t exist as web pages that you click around on and POOF all your work is done for you.

    Cloud computing is any computing task you accomplish via a resource that lives on the internet. Yes, marketing likes goofy terms. Now go back to your “Droids” and your “iPhones”.

  18. ron

    The real new par-a-dime will be Crowd computing!

  19. Richard

    Cloud Computing is what was provided by an ASP or Application Service Provider not very long ago, so this is essentially the same thing with a new name and more players in the mix. The one thing this does tell me is that there is a lot of money to (potentially) be made by a few players in the mix.

    My biggest concern? Security/Privacy. Figure that part out and you might have my attention. (Of course half of the consumers using the Interweb these days have no concern for security – tell them anything is free and they will hand over just about any information you ask to get it.)

  20. jantonio

    Congratulations. Excelent article. Your site is one of my favorites.

  21. Jeremy

    Check out this animation from IBM, it provides a nice, easy to understand intro on cloud.

    Also, a good blog post on “Defining Cloud Computing”

    You can reach me on Twitter @jhodge88

  22. Me2

    It appears–as shown here, that “Cloud Computing” does generate a substantial amount of “Discussion”, if nothing else. This is good.

  23. Computer Geek

    Way to dumb it down. Rocket science is just a buzzword for shooting pointy things into the air.

  24. Russ

    As far as offline goes, users tend to be more patient with Google mail being down than when a local email server fails…or maybe that is just diverted blame.

  25. Shovelhead

    Cloud computing might just be a concept and it might just be marketing and it might just be apps, but its a marketing concept of appcentric networking that is growing and growing and exploding to the point that;

    the internet is dead.

    long live the web

  26. Jerry

    Ponder these questions, what happens when your internet connection goes down? And even worse your entire business is dependant on using “The Cloud” for everything. What about the price of bandwidth? What seems like a really great idea is not without its own problems.

  27. Jerome

    Oh My God! Thank You. You’ve not only made it simple to understand, you’ve also made it simple to explain to others too. Now just wait till someone asks ME what is ‘cloud computing’. When I finish I’ll sound so knowledgeable there next question will be about ‘the world the universe and everything else’

  28. charan

    nice visualization explanation of colud computing bro

  29. Milton

    Very well explained. Today I really understood the meaning of this Buzzword.

  30. Yoshiyah

    And as the Internet crash from just the sheer number of people connected, we shall be locked from accessing our documents, letters, games, files, songs, etc…

    I do not like this concept. I payed good money for my Quad Core CPU, GPU, Ram, Motherboard, Operating System, and Hard drive. I do not wish to have to pay for online access to my apps as well. Just the idea of someone dictating how much hard drive space I can use saddens me, especially with a music collection fast approaching 75 GB.

  31. Bobro

    I see that you hate this term, but i think you should all be angry at people using as a buzz word… i quite like it over the old ASP (Application Service provider)

    I like calling it cloud computing… but i do hate how people are using it as a buzzword of something new, when its just not

  32. Don

    I must be missing something. Sorry I am not an I.T. guy, I am a business executive. So I am suppose to get excited about running MS Office apps over the Internet versus on our own computers? When it takes Microsoft at present, forever to update Windows and Office programs online? And we are suppose to run our CAD programs (CATIA, Unigraphics) over the internet when they contain all of our strategic, intellectual product designs? And our confidential financial data is going to be more secure on web based SAP or QAD programs? And when we are in a plane 40,000 feet over the USA, in rural areas where are factories are built, or even at customer locations, well have seamless, high-speed internet access without worry?

    Sounds like a few developer’s heads are in the clouds.

  33. Azathoth

    Cloud Computing is just the latest attempt to market Software as a Service, Grid computing, time-sharing and probably other paradigms that have come and gone once end-users took a critical look at them. It’s just sexier sounding. It just occurs to me that eventually it may be called Smoke and Mirrors computing.

  34. Azathoth

    Don, Don, Don,

    You are obviously just trying to bait some trolls with that Luddite posturing.

    *L* *Just kidding*

    Seriously, you have just held the mirror up to the Emperor.

  35. Azathoth


    Cloud Computing is scoring over ASP partly because it’s hard to mislead someone into thinking they’re getting something for free if “Provider” is in the name.

  36. Ed

    Oh – I like this article. I’ll put in on my blog. I used to do marketing but it’s this kind of stuff that that really made me feel ill. I’m glad I’m a geek again.

  37. Mark Hall

    Yes, some of the elements of Cloud Computing have been around for a while. But if you actually read the NIST (National Institute on Standards and Technology) document further than just the definition that you posted, you would see that there are five essential elements to cloud computing…
    1.) Broad Network Access (Yep, been around for a long time)
    2.) Pooled Resources (ditto)
    3.) Rapid Elasticity (also been around for a while)
    4.) Self Service, Automated Provisioning (aha, one of the newer kids on the block)
    5.) Metered Usage (Utility Billing, also one of the newer features of some middleware offerings)
    When all five of these are working in concert with each other, you have cloud computing.

    You tend to oversimplify your definition of the cloud, and then there is the Delivery and Deployment framework that you avoided all together.

    You also point to Larry Ellison’s cloud rant as evidence that this is all just hype. Gee, Larry just announced that Oracle has some wonderful Cloud Products for sale, so he can no longer be used as the anti-cloud poster boy.

    So, while there is a lot of hype and much overuse of the C word, it is real, and it does offer some amazing benefits if you can avoid the pitfalls of adapting new technology to old workloads.

  38. Snta1280

    Don’t drink anymore Kool-Aide, you’re turning purple.
    NIST mentions that this definition applies to a rapidly developing technology, and is subject to “changes at any time”. How convenient….they can make this stupid term mean anything, in order to breathe new marketing potential into it. Let’s face it, hype technology is often like yesterday’s left over flounder in a restaurant, just mash it up and season it so it can be sold today as a “fish cake special”.

    You accuse the OP in over simplifying the definition, but in essence that is all cloud computing really is– web hosted apps and services. This is why they are aggressively marketing this word to ordinary people in their living rooms, who are most probably not in “IT”. What’s even more annoying is the TV commercials featuring soccer moms saying “I’ll go to the cloud” to crop digital photos. Marketing once again taking advantage of the masses who like to be spoon fed this drivel.

    As far as Oracle and Larry Ellison, I am sure he was eventually convinced into supporting this moronic buzzword, he would be stupid not to from a revenue perspective.

    Also, “rapid elasticity” may be part of NIST’s definition of the cloud model, many cloud computing environments don’t include this functionality at all – or will make you pay a great deal more for it….


  39. jay2jay

    Nice one. Glad I to be finally clear on this :)
    One thing- in the cartoon, it should be “advice”, as in a noun.
    Vigilant grammar nazi is always vigilant.

  40. G-GeeK

    And piracy will be over.A nightmare for ppl and good dream for dev.

  41. Quoc Hung

    Cloud Computing = Internet + Web Applications.

  42. CyberVulcan

    Cloud computing is just another name for the concept of mainframes and dumb terminals aka net appliances aka thin clients aka ASPs nobody liked that idea then why would anybody want more of the same I believe that is why PCs were invented. What reallys gets me is that one ad clained that web applications are adding offline components isnt that what modern day Office suites do?

  43. CleanFun

    Who cares what they want to call it. The question remains, should this be the direction they take? You’re being pushed into a world where you own nothing but instead, rent everything.

  44. coyote_song

    Two words: privacy and security.

    Isn’t Google the company who has already executed several shady interactions with the Chinese government involving internet use and their citizens?

    Cloud computing = (Government+Big Business) – freedom/individualism

    What’s not to trust here? In the infamous words of Alfred E. Neuman “What! Me Worry?”

  45. Dee Frink

    funny, nice touch on another clumsy microsoft move

  46. Mike

    Now why would anyone in their right mind want to do this from a user persepctive? I remember mainframes and having to plead for resources from some pencil necked geek in the server control room.

    All these nerds have done is perform a neat bait and switch. Changing the technology etc. and replace the mainframe with the cloud.

  47. seenu

    simple explanation

  48. Isaac Rabinovitch

    Snarky nonsense. As the NIST quote says (pretty clearly, IMHO) CC is about the application itself — the web is just a delivery mechanism.

  49. Matt

    “Discuss.” is also a stupid buzzword.

  50. QdK

    I love how that ‘What is Cloud Computing?’ video doesn’t explain how web apps are more secure, but claims to anyway. (And no, fixes being deployed centrally isn’t about the security of an application, it merely says something about how to fix its security.)
    It’s fun how you can take a subset of what everyone already takes for granted on the internet and turn it into a buzzword. And have people defend it rigorously somehow. This goes for “cloud” as well as web 2.0. Usually with a new revision, you get new stuff, or better stuff, however we already got that before it was coined 2.0. I for one am glad that’s died out now ;)

    Tongue in cheek consideration: what kind of software do you expect to run in a cloud? Yup, vaporware.

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