Don’t Let Definition Debates Cloud Your CRM Vision

The term “cloud computing” has inspired a lot of thought, energy, ideas and enthusiasm. It’s also sparked a lot of head-scratching, brow-furrowing and definition-debating.

You might think that after several years of the concept being in the forefront of thought around business computing, this might have resolved itself and there would be a single, holistic view of what “the cloud” means. If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Attendees at Oracle OpenWorld have been treated this week to the embodiment of the debate over what the cloud is, courtesy of two rather prominent figures in the world of software: Oracle’s Larry Ellison and’s Marc Benioff. The positions they took on the cloud were totally predictable, since their views catered to product images each is trying to project. However, they were also an indication of why users find it hard to fully grasp what “the cloud” means: No one at the vendor level is willing to provide a complete definition.

It’s in a Box

Ellison kicked off OpenWorld on Sunday with a keynote that included the introduction of an integrated middleware machine called the “Exalogic Elastic Cloud,” a big gray box tuned to run Java very rapidly, to provide a complete cloud computing infrastructure, according to Oracle.

“It’s a cloud in a box,” Ellison said as he introduced it Sunday night.

It was the sort of thing you’d expect from a company that spent a lot of money to acquire Sun last year, and that was very cool to the idea of SaaS until the market forced its hand. That announcement came with a round-about definition of what Oracle thinks “the cloud” is.

Ellison took time to say that was not a cloud company — it was a 10-year-old software company, and that was not what the cloud was about. Ellison stuck to the idea that the cloud was the underlying infrastructure, the kind of thing that could be created and nurtured with the Exalogic Elastic Cloud product. That pointed toward a view of the cloud as infrastructure, and Oracle’s eye firmly on the private cloud part of that infrastructure.

What It’s Not

On Wednesday, Benioff took the stage for his Twitter fail-whale-inducing talk, and, in mock distress, parried Ellison’s jabs.

“The cloud is not in a box!” he said, before asserting that there should be a cloud computing test: If it requires you to buy more hardware and software (presumably, on-premise software), it’s not cloud. If it can’t scale, or it lacks automatic upgrades, or it has no applications marketplace, or it isn’t energy-efficient, it isn’t the cloud.

If that definition sounds a lot like what already sells, there’s a good reason for it — the same reason that Ellison’s definition was a good match for the big gray boy he shared the stage with Sunday night. Both vendors want to appropriate the term and make it their own. The problem is that the cloud is bigger and more complicated than either end of this debate is willing to acknowledge.

It’s Elementary, My Dear

Here’s my view of “cloud computing”: It’s computing. You need an underlying infrastructure (the boxes Ellison was talking about), the software to run on it (hello,, I’m looking at you), and a transport layer to make it all work together.

At a very, very basic level, it’s the same as what we’ve done since the first time two computers were networked. Back then, though, we didn’t hear scientists at IBM arguing about whether the hardware or the software WAS the computer, or which was really the network. That was a silly idea that would have earned derision comparable to not wearing a shirt and tie to the office.

Nowadays, users are more sophisticated than back then, and yet we still figure out ways to baffle them around computing concepts. Thus, if you’re a CRM user, here’s my suggestion: Forget the cloud.

Hit the Mute Button

You heard me right. Pay no attention to it. Step away from the fray and let the CEOs have their fun. Focus on your business needs. Odds are good that a cloud-based solution — one that uses software optimized for the cloud, running on a distributed infrastructure — will do the job for you. It’ll cut your administrative costs, provide backup and disaster recovery, limit your upfront costs and enable you to be more flexible than you’ve been in the past. The point is to let your business objectives lead you to it — that’s really the way you should be reaching these decisions, anyway.

It’s possible, though, that your business requirements may lead you to an on-premise solution. You may have regulatory issues that preclude the cloud model, or you may have management that’s still leery of it, or you may simply prefer to use your capital and in-house talent to tend to your business computing environment yourself, thus allowing you to skip the cloud sideshow entirely.

The question you need to ask is whether a cloud solution — regardless of how it’s defined or who’s defining it — works to address your CRM issues and help you forge better relationships with customers, and whether it does so in the optimal way for your company.

Ignore the debates among vendors (amusing as they may be), and focus on your own company. If you do that, the question of whether or not to deploy CRM via the cloud will decided itself, regardless of the definition du jour of “cloud computing.”

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he’s not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he’s wearing his airplane geek hat; he’s written two books on World War II aviation, and his next two are slated for publication in 2010.

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