The term "Cloud" comes from old networking flowcharts, where the connection to the wider internet was represented with a cloud icon. Sort of a nerdy version of "here be monsters" on an old map, indicating a realm which the mappers were not even going to try to deal with.
What "cloud" means in practical terms is a tool or resource that is primarily somewhere else, as opposed to on a local device. And for a while, this was a distinct category -- stuff in "the cloud" vs. stuff on your own computer. But this is no longer the case. These days, there are many "local" tools that only work properly if they have a network connection. Tools that look like a thing you have, but which are actually a service that "lives in the cloud." There are tangible, physical objects that are only useful if they maintain a connection to the cloud. The cloud, which was once an indicator of a special condition, something outside the normal, local network, is now an all-pervasive fog, bleeding into every nook and cranny of what was once stable and solid. An iPhone without the cloud is a hockey puck. A self-driving car without the cloud is a pylon.
The cloud itself is also a massive physical thing. Data centers are huge, power-hungry installations. Their immensity, and the tangled webs of infrastructure feeding them electricity and water are the furthest thing from drifting hazy wispiness invoked by the term "cloud." But clouds also obscure and hide, make the outlines hazy, conceal what lies beyond. The term cloud is itself a smokescreen eliding the massive structures that undergird our seemingly ephemeral tools and distractions.
Resources and News:
- How One Little Amazon Error Can Destroy the Internet - Gizmodo, 28 Feb 2017
- WTF is cloud computing? - TechCrunch, 19 Feb 2017
- Want to See the Future of Networking? It's in Research & Education Today - Scientific Computing, 21 Feb 2017