Answering Mom: What Is Cloud Computing?

While certainly not applicable to all Moms, I think many of us in deeply technical fields share a common experience of trying to explain to our Mom what someone pays us to do. As a mother’s love is unconditional, I’m sure no matter what we tell them; there will be a streak of pride. But as scientists and engineers, we are obsessed with precision and accuracy and love recognition.  So when faced with an inescapable question, like “so what exactly is Cloud Computing?”, we are left with no choice but to tap into the right side of our left-skewed brains—and get creative.

Communication Tactic: Analogies

“Sweater, n.:  garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.” – Ambrose Bierce

The whole point of an analogy is to explain something new by comparing it to something known.  The trouble with analogies is they are inherently imperfect and can lead to incorrectly assuming properties of the known also apply to the new.  Additionally, the known may be so comfortable to the audience that it superimposes itself on what you do.

Cutting Computing Architectures Down to Size

As part of my job, I regularly talk about advances in computer technology – most notably processors and computers built with multitudes of processors. But why is this hard? Can’t you just buy “the best” processor from Intel or IBM or NVIDIA? The challenge is the myriad of different problems we try to solve with a computing platform – mapped to a complex universe of possible solutions across combinations of hardware and software choices.

After many flawed analogies, the simplest I’ve come to employ is yard work. Many of our Moms assigned yard work chores while we were growing up. On any given Saturday, two tasks I may have performed were mowing the lawn and cutting down an old tree. Abstractly, these are the same task: employ a machine to sever plant material.

I was willing to spend more time, care, and fuel on the tree task than a single blade of grass. Thus, a chainsaw is the tool of choice for the job.  But to cut the lawn with a chainsaw would result in poor quality, wasted time and fuel, and perhaps cause the neighbors to hide behind shuttered windows! Similarly, while a mower is time-efficient at cutting grass (a very large number of blades of grass cut simultaneously in a “massively parallel” process), it lacks the capability to chop down a tree.

So what do Computer Architecture and yard work have in common? You need to understand the variety of tools, particularly as new ones are invented, and then properly select and apply them to the required task. The risk is overhearing Mom then repeat: “He is a computer gardener” – but the payoff is eerily lucent: “He is trying to invent a lawnmower that works on forests.  But it’s really computers and data.”

Putting Cloud Computing Through the Wringer

The buzz around “Cloud Computing” is so pervasive, even Mom asks what’s the big deal. My favorite analogy first appeared in Christofer Hoff’s Rational Survivability blog: Laundry. You have a home computer for data. You have a home washer /dryer for clothes. They are designed to carry a workload proportional to expected historic use at a point of need. There is a clear value in knowing your washer is available and that the intimates you put in it stay in the house. But you had to purchase the washer and dryer, make an informed choice in doing so, and you expect it to work for many years.  Most likely you do not employ all of its features and over that time do not benefit from advances in washer/dryer technology improvements.

Now suppose you host a family reunion and suddenly the demand for clothes washing spikes, either you can inefficiently employ your domestic appliances or load up baskets and either drive to a Laundromat (Infrastructure-as-a-Service/IaaS) or have these picked up by a Laundry Service (Software-as-a-Service/SaaS). The advantages here include: someone with more expertise than yourself selected the appliances, purchased them, maintains them, and you only pay when you use them – for the small part of their life you use. Because their purpose is to serve a market of users (multitenancy) there is a much larger capacity collectively (and perhaps even individually) than at home.

So rather than running 8 loads one after another, you can stuff 4 larger machines at once and complete the task in 1/8th of the time. If a laundry service, you even benefit from their expertise in operating the machines and using detergents, and offloading the labor involved in the process from dirty to wash to dry to fold.

However – there are some inconveniences and risks. You need to be able to pay at time of service (perhaps with a bucket of quarters), you incur a delay in the movement of your clothes to and from these machines, others are using the machines, so it’s possible you may need to wait or that your intimates may be seen by others if care is not taken, or you may even lose something in the process.

There are many flaws to this model – it is incomplete, exaggerates some aspects, and clothes are not digital (yet) so cannot be replicated or transmitted (like a virtual closet). But as a canonical task often lovingly delegated to Mom (particularly in the college years), laundry is a familiar experience from which to discuss “The Cloud.”  This analogy is also ironic and potentially confusing on two fronts: One, GE obviously manufactures actual washers/dryers, and two, GE Aviation builds computers for aircraft that literally operate in the clouds.

Pleasing Mom

There is a clear benefit to this exercise, no matter how tedious or seemingly futile. We, as passionate practitioners of engineering and science, directly benefit from being able to clearly communicate our work to non-technical people. We need the ability to describe how our work is important to our employer and customers, what we actually do, and why it is challenging. The fact that our Mom wants to get the low down on our highly technical job, and has the patience to listen is actually a gift and great practice.

I lead a Computing lab that frequently collaborates with Mechanical Engineers, Physicists, Biologists, Chemists, etc., so it’s not unusual that a courageously asked naïve question actually leads to a novel approach at problem-solving.  Our discussion with Mom becomes an “outside” viewpoint that forces us to think about a technical problem from a radically different angle.  These outside viewpoints can lead to insights and connect us with new colleagues (which should please Mom as she always wants you to make new friends.)

At Your Mother’s Knee

One of the greatest gifts of Mothers is a strong foundation from which we build everything we become. We can thank Mom for fostering us being curious, observant, disciplined, and patient. To then reach into the darkness where nobody has before imagined, taking the calculated risks needed to reap great reward – we are ever-armed with the confidence, the safe harbor, and the encouragement of our Mothers.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms out there and I hope your day is spent on a cloud that needs no explanation — cloud nine.

 “No one in the world can take the place of your mother.
Right or wrong, from her viewpoint you are always right.
She may scold you for little things, but never for the big ones.”  – Harry Truman


  1. Bobby

    Those are good ideas and resources. In my ecxreienpe, everyone suffers from slow pc and internet speeds. The problem is, after using your computer long enough junk collects in the registry and your computer performance slows down (much like a car needing an oil change).

  2. Rick Arthur

    I wrote this blog to represent a common experience as an engineer in explaining our work to those who are not familiar with the field. I chose to highlight my mother, but it was not my goal to generalize any group of people in any way.

    I see that you are passionate about the topic of women in STEM, as am I. I appreciate you taking the time to read and express yourself. In support of great role models, I encourage all to visit: Grandma Got STEM! that celebrates many powerful examples of STEM accomplishments by women over many years.

  3. Rachel

    I agree with Emily’s comment below. This post reinforces stereotypes of women we are trying to change.

  4. Emily

    I can tell you love your mother from this article but please do not generalize lack of technical ability to the role of mother. I am a mom with a mechanical engineering degree who was in the top 1% of her class. I am deeply offended by this article as I will be training my son in physics and mathematics as he matures just like my mother did with me. I got my technical skills from both my mother and father. Please take this blog down.

  5. Katherine Anderson

    Great read… thanks!