The flag of “cloud computing” is getting wrapped around a great many services that do very different things. Rather than talking about grids, clusters, virtualized servers, and enterprise clouds, I wonder if it’s more clear to talk about the differences in terms of another technology that’s commonly packaged in comparably different ways.

Suppose you’re accustomed to the idea that when you need a car, you go to an auto parts store and buy the pieces — and put them together yourself. You don’t make the windows or tires from scratch, and you don’t refine your own gasoline, but it’s up to you to figure out what pieces you need and how you’re going to assemble them.

That’s the kind of problem that enterprise IT has been solving for years: the industry offers some useful and quite complex modules of hardware and packaged software, but the customer has to figure out what’s needed and how it will all connect. The customer is also on the hook to do it again if needs incrementally expand, or to do it all over differently if needs change by an order of magnitude.

If you then see an auto dealership, where dozens of cars have already been put together and are ready to drive off the lot, you might be inspired to praise this innovation of “cars as a service.” You’d still have to learn to drive, you’d still have to maintain the car, you’d still have to decide whether you need a small sedan or a full-size SUV — and face high switching costs if you change your mind — but this would still be a big leap of convenience.

Get over your surprise, though, and you’ll realize that it shouldn’t be all you expect.

For example, your next discovery might be the car-rental company. Not only is the car fully assembled and ready to drive, it’s also maintained and insured and garaged when you’re not using it — and if your needs change, you simply rent a different vehicle.

All right, then — are Hertz, Avis or Thrifty the true realization of “cars as a service”? Perhaps not: you still need to know how to drive, and the skills involved in driving a truck to move your house full of furniture are not the same as the skills required to drive yourself to work in a compact car.

What, then, if you next encounter a chauffeur-driven car/truck service? Now, that’s “cars as a service”: you call the provider, tell them how many people and how many boxes need to go from where to where and when they need to arrive. Perhaps you now see where I’m going with this: using a cloud-based CPU grid or storage array is much more like renting a car than like calling for a limo.

Yes, there are basic services in the cloud that help you handle peak workloads without carrying the capital investment of peak capacity on your books — but basic cloud services don’t take the enterprise out of the business of administering commodity technology. The operating system, middleware stack and application code on a virtual server still have to be configured, interfaced and updated, just as a rental car has to be driven and its gas tank filled.

Cloud services are wonderful, but they can’t be directly compared against a fully packaged portfolio of SaaS applications — or a high-leverage platform and API set like those of Comparing against “servers as a service” isn’t even an apples-to-oranges comparison — it’s more like comparing candy apples to orange seeds.

By all means, be an aggressive shopper for cloud-based offerings, and mix them as needed to build a strategic system that creates competitive advantage. But don’t confuse a rental car with a limo that comes when you call.

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