It's either the newest thing in online delivery of a dizzying array of services to the masses and back office alike, or it's really nothing new, depending on who you ask.
For instance, to Pat Valentino, senior vice president of real-time solutions at FIS in Jacksonville, Fla., the term "cloud" has become jargon.
"I've been in financial services for more than 40 years, and what I'm hearing called the 'cloud' is taking the traditional service bureau model and adding a new word to make it sound kind of cool," Valentino said.
"Now, at our company today and in my business in particular, we have added functionality like IRA balancing and ACH clearing and put in what we call a cloud, a virtual back office. But that's really kind of jargon for offering business functions in a way that it's affordable for smaller credit unions that don't have the staff to do that kind of work on their own," she said.
That rings true for Randy Karnes, CEO of CU*Answers, a Grand Rapids, Mich., CUSO that provides core processing and other services to more than 160 credit unions.
"As with any buzzword there are core meanings and then extensions labeled with the same term," Karnes said. "But we see two major opportunities in people crafting their own cloud-type solutions with us."
That includes the expansion of CU*Answers services into "remote everything" from an IT perspective, Karnes said, noting that more than 50 credit unions already back up their PC networks remotely with his CUSO.
"Then there's the initiative to revolutionize small credit union buying, one connection to all that we have," Karnes said. "No longer would small credit unions be limited to single- and two-station PC solutions. They would be net-ready for all member self-service and comprehensive core solutions along with their vital business office solutions."
That group buying and delivery concept resonates with a definition of cloud computing from Kevin McDearis, chief technology officer for enterprise technology at Fiserv Inc. in Brookfield, Wis.
"At a high level, you can think of cloud computing in the same terms as electric utilities," McDearis said. "When you plug in a razor, you're not sure exactly where the power comes from, but it's available on demand when you need it. Cloud computing offers a wide variety of implementation flavors. There are public, private, hosted and private internal clouds that offer a wide variety of security, compliance and control."
And from the credit union perspective, senior technologist James Burke-Frazier at the $2.8 billion Wescom Credit Union in Pasadena, Calif., said, "Cloud has moved from a term describing an architecture format to a new way of looking at defining products and partnerships, but I still see the same back and forth when credit unions look to see if something will fit a specific need."
He also said he would add software-as-a-service to the mix when talking about the evolution of the term and the technology.
Another technologist who has studied the idea of cloud computing at length is Michael Lupacchino, a marketing associate at NSK Inc., a Boston-based IT management and consulting service that specializes in small and medium-sized businesses.
Lupacchino recently researched and wrote a white paper titled "Hybrid Clouds: The Best of Both Worlds" and said, "Cloud computing was a vague concept to me when I started. I saw a lot of different uses for it, including the very public uses of the Internet for Amazon and Google apps and storage and things like that."
After a lot of thought and conversation, Lupacchino came up with this answer to the question, What exactly is cloud computing?
"Cloud computing isn't a technology but rather a model of computing. In this model, servers, applications and other resources are offered to an end user via a network connection, usually the Internet," he said.
"So anytime 'cloud' is mentioned, it's referring to hardware, software or services that are accessible from virtually anywhere with a simple network connection," Lupacchino said.
And there are big clouds and little clouds. For instance, McDearis at Fiserv points to his company's delivery of its new Acumen core processing platform.
"[Acumen] supports credit unions who would like to deploy private internal clouds," he said. "Clients are showing interest in this because it allows them to manage all their IT resources dynamically using a secure internal cloud rather than having separate infrastructure and IT staff responsible for just their core banking systems," McDearis said.
He said Fiserv continues to explore ways of creating cloud-based hosting models for online products and, in fact, has been working for several years to increase virtualization capabilities in its data centers, which he called "phase one for moving to a cloud infrastructure."
He added, "Cloud computing is the evolution of virtualization. When we solved a technology problem five years ago, we did this with a physical asset. Three years ago we solved these problems through virtualization technologies allowing us to reduce cost and increase deployment agility."
"The cloud is the next progression in virtualization, allowing the automation, deployment and consumption of computing power and application delivery across a geographically diverse infrastructure. This abstraction drives standardization, reduces costs and increases quality."
McDearis' public utilities reference, incidentally, was foreshadowed in an observation that Lupacchino quoted at the beginning of his white paper from pioneering computer scientist John McCarthy: "If computers of the kind I have advocated become the computers of the future, then computing may someday be organized as a public utility just as the telephone system is a public utility."
That was in 1961 at the MIT Centennial.