Cloud Computing is a bad metaphor

At a certain point you hear a name for something so many times it looses any real meaning. It’s just a name. Kleenex, as a word, doesn’t mean anything.  Neither does Häagen-Dazs. But over time words just become labels and we forget their origins or initial meanings.

But in the case of Cloud Computing, I’m still stuck on what an awful metaphor it is for anything.

  • Clouds are fleeting. They don’t last long.
  • Clouds are vague and open to wide interpretation. No one sees the same thing when they look up at clouds.  (“Do you see Darth Vader’s nose?” “No… oh do you mean the leg of the camel sitting under a tree?” “What Camel?” “Nevermind”)
  • Clouds often bring rain, lightening and cold wind.
  • You can’t see the sky, or the stars, when the clouds are out.
  • (However Obscured by clouds is a good Pink Floyd album few know about).
  • When someone has ill-formed ideas, we say their thinking is cloudy.
  • Clouds, and the weather, are unpredictable.

Forgetting the fact that it’s an old idea that’s fallen in and out of favor several times already, the metaphor itself has never sat well with me.

(Hat tip R/J/A)

21 Responses to “Cloud Computing is a bad metaphor”

  1. Marc

    I’ve always thought the term came from the nebulous “bubbles” on a white board, draw to represent something “out there”.

    What’s a better metaphor?


    – p.s. – Obscured by Clouds is a fantastic album. :)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Marc: I reserve the right to criticize things without having anything even in the ballpark of a better alternative :)

      I think the name has worked well mostly because it’s a short word, and the C gives it alliteration with the word computing, rather than the metaphor being particularly good.

  2. Steven B. Levy

    I don’t think it started life as a metaphor per se. As I recall, it was a symbol (from PowerPoint in some cases) used in discussions in the mid-90s (94-97 or so) to represent the Internet itself. It was usually in the context of lines going from pictures of tangible stuff (e.g., servers) to other pictures of tangible stuff (more servers) but passing over the Internet rather than dedicated lines. Since the Internet was somewhat indeterminate — no quality of service guarantee or guaranteed packet delivery — folks represented it with a cloud symbol. It stuck as shorthand.

    I agree, not a great metaphor.

  3. Michael Gaigg

    Your points are well made for the metaphor of a cloud.
    I guess the symbol of the cloud itself comes from diagrams (right? and that dates back to my days at school) where the internet was always symbolized as a cloud (or a wiggly circle or an edgeless rectangle or so).

  4. Phil Simon


    A few things. First and most important, “Obscured” is a criminally underrated album. Written and recorded in three weeks, it’s often overlooked. But I could go about Floyd for almost as long as I could go on about Rush…

    Yes, I hear you about the term ‘cloud computing.’ While the term might be new, the concept is certainly not. I would draw an analogy between clouds and SaaS. The predecessor of SaaS was the largely-discredited ASP model. While there may not be much of a difference between SaaS and ASP, do you think that SaaS would have a chance if people referred to it by its old–and presumably dead–moniker?

    Just throwing it out there.


  5. Ken Norton

    I especially enjoy seeing headlines like “IBM jumping into the cloud” or “More companies leap into the cloud.” Do you know what would happen if you jumped into a cloud?

  6. Dave Richardson

    Computing has to have it’s jargon. How else can we bamboozle the customers ?

    Clouds are everywhere in the world; computer services becoming ubiquitous. Clouds are above ordinary people and large in scale; big company provide the infrastructure.
    The enjoyment of a metaphor evaporates if you take it too seriously or too studiously. The connection may hold for a handful of characteristics of the two things being compared but never for all.

    Language changes all the time. What starts off as an innovative, fresh metaphor that succinctly encapsulates much thought, becomes popular, and then with overuse degenerates into a tired, hackneyed clich

  7. Joel D Canfield

    I’m glad this turned into a discussion of ‘Obscured’ because I can’t come up with a good metaphor for nebulous and ethereal data storage either. But having just heard ‘Obscured’ for the first time, I’m ashamed I waited so long (owned ‘Ummagumma’ forever, consider ‘Meddle’ one of the best albums of all time)

    Are the folks who understand the term ‘cloud computing’ bothered by its negative connotations? The geeks I know rarely see clouds. Or sky. Or sunshine.

    But I certainly don’t use the term with my non-geek clients. I call it “using other people’s much better and faster and safer computers over the internet” and that seems to be explanation enough.

  8. Prakash

    common man can not understand whats going in the “clouds” up in the sky… so does the “cloud computing”. I think it makes sense that way !!

  9. Jacek

    It works pretty well with enterprise customers. They learned in the past that their data and applications always can be found in server room. When we are talking about modern solutions they are asking “where my data will be stored, where I can find my applications?”. “In the clouds” is good answer. Customer see in his mind clouds which are flowing, they are not on the same place all the time.

  10. Brian VP

    How about… “Infinite Computing”

    Because theoretically you can never run out of computing resources (just money to pay for them)

  11. Bern

    totally agree. But that is what you get from Microsoft . they named thing really weird .. like their search engine “Bing”. I don’t know what Bing means but it doesn’t sound nice to my ear.
    instead of “Google me their phone” you can “Bing me their phone”
    or you can “get it from the cloud”. Bing me their phone” and “get it from the cloud” sound pretty awful

  12. Dug

    I think it arose and persists because at its core it has the deep metaphor of “resource”.

    And the way people think of clouds usually is the friendly fluffy kind, not the satormy, random, dangerous kind.

  13. Alex

    The engineers that came up with the term cloud and the cloud symbol in diagrams and whiteboards referred to ‘network cloud’ which has total different properties than a weather cloud needless to say. For a reason IEEE (a standardization organisation) is also referring to “Network cloud computing”.

    I guess users of the term all assume that as soon Cloud is used in IT context (e.g. IBM Cloud) the receivers automatically understand we are talking about a network cloud and not the ones in the air.

  14. chetu

    I can not clearly say whether clouding computing is good or bad metaphor, I read news that the biggest player of IT industry moved in cloud computing. So It is very hard me to find.



Leave a Reply

* Required