Cloudwashing: When a cloud is not a cloud and how to avoid it

In the gold rush that is Cloud companies are being burned signing up to services relabelled as Cloud that are anything but. The labelling of standard offerings as Cloud services when they don’t meet the characteristics of actual Cloud is known as “Cloud Washing”.

Cloud has some characteristics that set it apart from other ICT services such as outsourcing, hosting, capacity on demand, or facilities management. These are well accepted and well-defined by National Institute of Standards and Commerce in the US, otherwise known as NIST. The full definitions can be found here. The five characteristics of cloud are:

  • On-demand self-service
  • Broad network access
  • Resource pooling
  • Rapid elasticity
  • Measured service


On-demand self-service

“A consumer can unilaterally provision computing capabilities, such as server time and network storage, as needed automatically without requiring human interaction with each service provider.”

The ability to self-provision your own service is true cloud. Having to deal with a service desk or some kind of intermediary is not Cloud. Having to go through any lengthy process to provision service, move service, or change service, is not Cloud.

Typically this is presented as some kind of self-service portal through which you can provision and retire services as you need them. Having multiple tools, methods, and applications to provision and retire service is not Cloud.

Broad network access

“Capabilities are available over the network and accessed through standard mechanisms that promote use by heterogeneous thin or thick client platforms (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and workstations).”

This is self-explanatory. By this definition, anything that requires you to be locked into some kind of proprietary access system is not Cloud. In general, Cloud service should be heterogeneous (open & standardised), if it is not, then you run the risk of being locked into that one supplier. Heterogeneous Cloud services allow you to move your services from one provider to another provider, or spread them across multiple providers (hybrid).

Resource pooling

“The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand. There is a sense of location independence in that the customer generally has no control or knowledge over the exact location of the provided resources but may be able to specify location at a higher level of abstraction (e.g., country, state, or datacenter). Examples of resources include storage, processing, memory, and network bandwidth.”

Be careful of CLoud services that offer dedicated resource or offer to house your infrastructure and deliver service back to you. Neither of these are Cloud. While there is an argument that because you are buying a service then it is up to the provider how that service is delivered, I think it is very important to see how the Cloud service is delivered back before you commit.

Providers that do not support this definition are likely to be more expensive, more risky, and less flexible. Expensive because they are maintaining separate infrastructures, risky because each stack must be maintained and invested in as opposed to a single pool, and less flexible given the complexity of multiple infrastructure is greater than one.

Rapid elasticity

“Capabilities can be elastically provisioned and released, in some cases automatically, to scale rapidly outward and inward commensurate with demand. To the consumer, the capabilities available for provisioning often appear to be unlimited and can be appropriated in any quantity at any time.”

Any service that requires you to sign a contract that locks you into capacity and services for months or years, is not Cloud. Rapid means I can stand up a service and consume it in short blocks of time if I choose too. Most large providers allow you to purchase service by the minute. Mid range Cloud services can require a minimum of a month without a contract (you see this in consumer Cloud), however I would argue that this needs to change, and is likely too as competition increases.

Any service that is not rapidly scalable, up or down, and requires over a month commitment in general, is not Cloud.

Measured service

“Cloud systems automatically control and optimize resource use by leveraging a metering capability at some level of abstraction appropriate to the type of service (e.g., storage, processing, bandwidth, and active user accounts). Resource usage can be monitored, controlled, and reported, providing transparency for both the provider and consumer of the utilized service.”

Metering capability is typically done via a pay-per-use or charge-per-use basis. Measured service is the ability to control your own destiny through dashboards, reporting, and real-time information. Any service that does not have this is not Cloud.

A word on Cloud maturity

Some people will have read the definitions in their strictest sense and will complain that nothing is then a Cloud technically and therefore these rules are simply barriers to the uptake of Cloud services.

I think that you have to read these definitions as the end goal of a Cloud service on a sliding scale. Because Cloud is developing rapidly, these standards and definitions are very new, as are actual Cloud services.

Therefore, when choosing a service, the roadmap becomes critical. If you take those characteristics of Cloud and the supplier can show that they are at least working toward them (or where they are on a scale), and have committed financially, then you can at least make an informed decision on whether to sign-up or not.

However, you are dealing with a private entity that does reserve the right to change its mind whenever they choose. Make sure that you are not funding your supplier into the Cloud by investing in something that they simply have not built yet.

Signs of Cloud washing

Tongue-in-cheek signs you’ve bought a Cloud washed product:

1. After ordering your Cloud, it arrives on the back of a truck in boxes.

2. Your power bill at your datacentre doubles and any free space you had is gone.

3. You can see the product, as in 1, and it has a Cloud painted on its side.

4. Your pay-as-you-go plan comes in the form of a three-year easy instalment contract.

5. Rapid elasticity happens after contacting the salesman and waiting three months.

6. The salesman is unavailable when you want to scale back your capacity.

7. Your job title has the word “Cloud” added to it but nothing has changed.

8. Two years after buying your Cloud service, the salesman calls you to tell you it needs to be upgraded.

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