What does 'cloud' mean? - drafting a narrative framework for better cloud-understanding

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The last few years we have worked with a number of projects that in one way or another have involved 'cloud'-something, and it has become increasingly clear to us that the term 'cloud' has become so inflated that it is almost useless in any kind of critical or creative discussion. It's what usually happens with buzzwordified marketing concepts.

Maybe 'the cloud' was a really bad metaphor to begin with, or it isn't actually a metaphor at all since its origin is the cloud-like shape that was used to represent a network on old telephony schematics. Hence it is a symbol and short-hand for something fuzzy undefined. The use of the cloud-shape almost seems accidental — they could as well have chosen the 'earth'/'ground'-symbol (which I personally think could have translated into a more useful metaphor).

Anyway. In a workshop a while ago I asked a group of our brilliant software engineering colleagues who actually work with cloud-technologies, if they could explain what 'the cloud' is, from a technical point of view. Perhaps they had a definition based on what it does, how the components interwork or just any base-criteria for using the 'cloud' epithet on something?

After the usual amusement over the fact that someone could ask such a stupid question about something so self-evident, it soon became apparent that everyone in the room had different definitions. And everyone were cocksure that her or his definition was the generally agreed one, which effectively derailed the workshop for a few hours. (Which was great fun). But there was no consensus.

Importance of shared terminology
I my experience a common understanding of a concept is important whether you are an engineer, a designer, software developer or strategist. Unintentional ambiguity often means that valuable resources are spent on resolving misinterpretations, or worse; teams assume they agree without noticing that they didn't until much too late in the process. This means that the vague meaning of a concept such as 'cloud' can be an obstacle in research & development, innovation processes and strategy work.

Lack of control and clarity is also typically something that disturbs people and organisations driven by economical rationality, and especially so if it concerns anything business critical. When we listen to how companies talk about the possibility of cloudifying their operations or products, it is evident that many potential customers of cloud-solutions are worried, due to uncertainty of what the 'cloud' means.

cloud clips


Another implication is that the assumed technical or economical benefits of one kind of cloud solution (e.g. private and telco-managed) compared to another (e.g. public over internet) become difficult to both explain and verify.

A narrative framework for discussing clouds
We are interested in articulating vague and volatile matters like this, so we set up a small project with the aforementioned concerns as a kind of design brief.

The result was a draft concept prototype tool for understanding the meaning of 'cloud'. The "tool" is a variant of the well-known board game Monopoly, a physical kit which provides a general narrative structure for explaining, discussing and thinking about the non-technological "soft" aspects related to cloud in general and telco-based and business critical clouds in particular.

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Here are some of the most important components:

Houses and hotels on the streets represent physical hardware and real estate, which are linked to each player's capital expenses (paid to the bank). We added a cloud-part to the centre of the board, so each "house" can also be in the cloud (as-a-service), which means that the capital expense associated with it can be turned into an operational expenses, a small fee paid each time passing Go! which is much cheaper than buying. This however have other implications related to the relative level of security or trust in the different cloud-tiers; the private, multi-tenant or public cloud.

board


The four railways are infrastructure providers: "connectivity", "data transport", "storage & processing" and at last; "the law firm" (which handles parts of the cloud's "dark matter", such as contracts and service level agreements etc).

connectivity
law firm


The chance cards describe a range of scenarios, which include issues related to legibility, understandability and transparence, perception, psychological biases, emotions and the constantly negotiated relation between cost and risk.

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card


The game is not intended to be played as if it was a real game since the objective isn't to entertain but to educate. The primary way to use it would be as a tool in moderator-led workshops where it can be a framework for presenting complex narratives and scenarios that can be discussed in a group.

We can hardly remove all the blurriness of 'cloud' with this little kit, but hope to be able to use it as a lens through which some of the meanings of 'cloud' can be captured with better focus and clarity.


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