As well as developing technologies, the IT industry is very good at coming up with new buzzwords. But not all of them are hugely helpful, and some might be better avoided, including the phrase "the cloud".
Or at least, that is the unexpected conclusion of some recent research from the analyst Ovum.
"The first thing to be clear about is that there is no such thing as 'the cloud'. This fluffy notion has no place in government ICT policy thinking," said a recent report from the firm.
Another way of looking at it, the first rule of cloud is: You do not talk about cloud.
"Policy should refer to a 'cloud service' – a tangible service delivered on a professional basis by a trustworthy external service provider," said the report by Ovum research director Steve Hodgkinson. "Cloud services are just shared services that work."
While the report is written for the public sector, its main conclusions could equally apply to the private sector.
"The logic of government cloud computing policy usually starts with the implicit assumption that cloud services are risky, ill-defined and unproven," Hodgkinson said. "Cloud services adoption in government faces resistance caused by procedural, organisational and cultural inertia."
As well as disputing the use of the term cloud computing on the grounds that it is too "woolly", Hodgkinson says that cloud computing and cloud services are two very different things.
Cloud computing, he says, "is the suite of technology innovations, including scalable infrastructure, virtualisation, automation, self-service provisioning portals and multi-tenant architectures used by a service provider to build and deliver a cloud service".
Whereas a cloud service is an "established bundle of processes, people, organisation and technology which has been assembled and refined to deliver a well-defined and trustworthy shared service to many customers", Hodgkinson says.
Above all, Hodgkinson emphasises the practical, arguing that a cloud service can and should be judged by what it is today and what it can offer now.
He warns that many organisations are too fond of talking about cloud services that may exist at some point in the future when money and resources allow. In the meantime, they are the modern equivalent of what some software companies used to call "vapourware".
A new language for cloud?
The amorphous nature of the cloud is an issue, according to Gartner's Gregor Petri, research director for cloud computing. "As somebody pointed out, the cloud is like an elephant. You can use words to describe it, like big and grey, but they don't really explain what it is and how do you explain the trunk?"
You need a different language, Petri says.
An IT department's view of the cloud cannot be explained in terms of what they do today, he says. Petri believes that when thinking about cloud computing companies have to rethink they way they do business. He uses the shoe maker Nike as an example.
"Nike is a manufacturer and retailer of shoes, or at least that is what it considers itself to be," Petri says. "But when Nike really examined where its core expertise lies, it is in the design and marketing of shoes. Now it gets other companies to build shoes that it designs."
IBM's cloud leader, Doug Clark, also believes that having a clear strategy is a crucial element in properly exploiting cloud computing, but he also believes that it is a forgiving form of IT implementation.
"I have clients in many areas and the language does not matter," he says. "They may think of it as utility computing or whatever, but it is still the cloud."
Ovum's senior analyst, Laurent Lachal, is an enthusiast for cloud computing and also sees it still growing, but he believes one of the big issues around the area is the continuing level of ignorance about it.
Lachal says that the cloud is everywhere but knowing that does not help in understanding, especially with the seemingly endless variations in cloud. "Public versus private cloud, public with private, hybrid clouds, hybrid on hybrid," and so it goes on, he says.
And he warns that the name "cloud computing" may not have a long sell-by date. "Fashions change and so do names," he says. He believes that the underlying concept will remain while the name may well vanish "along with computer bureaus and such like".