Cloud Buzz vs. Cloud Reality

Do you know what the cloud is? A few weeks ago, I asked that question to a group students. I was giving them a brief presentation on genomic data, and the work of my team to build infrastructure for translational research.
My intro usually talks about high-level architecture during these presentations. This includes slides about Amazon Web Services (AWS), and other cloud services. It was just after lunch that I was the third presenter. I was going to put this audience to sleep with my slides, especially since they were not written for them. I decided to break with the script and ask them “What’s the cloud?” The audience consisted of eight people, all in their early 20s. My question was met with face contortions and fidgeting. None of them wanted to know the answer.
To be fair, I could ask the same question to many people of different ages and technical skills, and get many different answers. I was more interested in the opinions of younger people who were less technically biased. All of these people were college graduates or soon to be college graduates, with some having higher degrees. All of them were interested in careers in life sciences and health care.
They eventually spoke up and their answers were surprising. First, they all looked up as if looking at a cloud. One of them actually raised their arms and held their hands in the air. Then, he placed both his hands above his head in a circular shape — just like a cloud. Did they really believe their data was floating above? Did the servers really seem to be floating above us? Is this where servers go when they’re retired?
It was clear that the cloud branding was making them believe that their data was in a cloud-like structure, and that they were being followed around.
After a few laughs, everyone agreed that there was no levitating data. I was intrigued and asked them more. I asked them, “Do you believe the cloud is secure?” I didn’t get any affirmations. They were uncomfortable again when I asked them the question. One of them said, “Doesn’t cloud let anyone access the data from anywhere?” The group nodded as if to confirm.
My thoughts immediately turned to Microsoft’s “To The Cloud!” See below for commercials. How many times did these young people see these ads and commercials throughout their lives? They must have been bombarded daily with cartoon clouds, IT guys talking about data accessibility and how easy it was to upload their data to the cloud and have it follow.
This made me wonder: Who or what called it the “cloud?” I began to do some research after the meeting. After just a few minutes of searching, I discovered that there is some dispute over who invented the term. I thought the term came from network drawings of IT networking components. Off-network services were drawn with cloud-like figures around them. This represented how they weren’t controlled by the IT department (see below).
Source: Wikipedia The cloud figure was always included in standard Microsoft or similar workflow templates. Compaq was presented with the idea in mid-’90s by individuals, according to records. Ironically, Compaq’s marketing team chose to use “cloud computing” instead of “Internet computing”. This didn’t work.
Whatever the origin of “cloud”, large cloud service providers took the idea and ran with it, as did the media. It is not unusual to take a complex term or technology and use simple (if anything, childish) terms for it. Think about what IBM is doing in Watson. However, cloud terminology has been misused in marketing materials to such an extent that it’s now difficult to distinguish between branding and cloud terminology.