Cloud Computing: How to explain it to others in your organization

06 December 2011 | Alan Merrihew, Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

Part of my job as Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy at Microsoft is to meet regularly with government officials and policymakers from around the world to help them take advantage of how the latest technologies can help them be more efficient and effective in running their organizations. Hands down, the hottest topic over the past few years has been cloud computing. But what’s been fascinating for me has been to watch how the dialogue around cloud computing is changing. In the early stages, I spent much of my time explaining what a cloud was and how governments could benefit from using it.

Today, the people I meet with are knowledgeable about cloud computing - and eager to implement it in their organizations. The conversation leapfrogs why cloud computing is important and often begins with helping developing a clear and effective communication strategy around what cloud computing is and why it should be part of their organizations’ strategies. After all, the real challenge facing these technology ambassadors to find a clear, non-technical way to explain cloud computing so that the average lay person can easily understand them. In case you’re struggling with the same issue, here are some resources that might help.

Let’s start with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) definition of cloud computing. I think it does a good job of defining cloud computing clearly. In fact, for all the customers I have talked to in the past few years, I have never had anyone disagree with this definition. To paraphrase NIST:

Cloud computing is a method of providing information and communication technology (ICT) resources as a service. This cloud service has five essential characteristics:

  1. On-demand self-service (You ask for what you want and get it automatically.)
  2. Broad network access (You have to have a network to access the cloud resource.)
  3. Resource pooling (The cloud provider manages all the resources behind the scenes for you - you don’t have to worry about it.)
  4. Rapid elasticity (The cloud service can scale up and down very rapidly to meet your needs.)
  5. Measured service (You only pay for what you use.)

In other words, you don’t have to build your own datacenter for that new project. You can use someone else’s datacenter and just rent time there.

Now let’s look at a metaphor that I find helpful for people still wrestling with the NIST definition.

If you have guests coming into town to visit, do you buy a car for them to use while they are in town for two weeks? And then does that car sit idle until the next time they come to visit? No, of course not! Logically, you would rent a car for them to use while visiting. Cloud services are effectively like a renting a car service, only for ICT. Let’s look at the five characteristics of a cloud service again using the rental car analogy:

  1. On-demand self-service (it is easy to rent a car, you can book a reservation by phone or online)
  2. Broad network access (there is a broad network of rental car agencies around the world to give you access to a car rental.)
  3. Resource pooling (The rental car companies manage a pool of cars in any given city to meet demand. You don’t have to worry about it. If one agency is out of cars they will often refer you to another to help you find a car.)
  4. Rapid elasticity (Rental car companies move cars into a particular location when there is a large event and they know demand will be high. They scale up and down to meet the demand.)
  5. Measured service (You pay only for the time you used the car. Once you turn it back in you are done. No maintenance, insurance, fuel, tires, etc.)

I have found this metaphor immensely helpful to my customers. Their faces often light up and they comment that they had never thought of cloud computing this way. In fact, many walk out of the room saying they are definitely going to use this metaphor to help explain cloud computing to their colleagues.

I look forward to contributing more of my thoughts on cloud computing here, so I hope you’ll stop by again soon. Until then, I hope these tips are useful as you help your colleagues understand what cloud computing is all about.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at

Alan Merrihew
Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Alan Merrihew | Senior Director of Government Technology Strategy, Worldwide Public Sector

As chief technology strategist for the government team, Alan regularly engages with senior government officials and policy makers worldwide to help them leverage technology to help make government more efficient and effective.