Nebulous Analogies

Having done my doctoral research on analogies, including their benefits and misuses, I am often amused by the analogies that crop up in the field of computing.

Starting long ago with von Neumann's "The Computer and the Brain" [1], computing analogies have both illuminated and confused many important IT concepts. The use of the term "memory" for persistent data storage, for example has a fairly clear and beneficial connection to human recall concepts. Less clearly helpful are analogies to thinking and consciousness common in AI research, as well as the current discussions around "cloud" computing. The corresponding characteristics of meteorological clouds and modern distributed computing are imprecise and misleading. It’s not clear how that analogy helps understand the critical technical concepts.

Now we have yet another unhelpful analogy, “Fog Computing” [2]. Attempting to characterize the “Internet of Things” [3] as an all-pervasive, obscuring “mist” explains nothing about the nature of ubiquitous, embedded computing services. And of course, computing vendors will jump at the chance to exploit the latest analogical buzzword to promote their products [4].

It’s difficult to communicate anything without using analogies, since that’s how the human brain works — we think using analogies [5]. But we should be careful in selecting the source analogs when trying to explain complex concepts. Poorly chosen sources can confuse and limit thinking and can hinder solution development. Surely there are better source analogs than clouds and fog. The “web” is clearly better than the “cloud” in conveying the idea of connectivity. But what is the ideal analogy for computing services that will eventually fill every corner of our daily lives, using our always-connected devices like smartphones and tablets, and the embedded services in our homes, cars, businesses, and social media? I don’t think it’s atmospheric phenomena. And I’m not sure it’s the “invisible computer” analogy either [6]. It’s probably more like oxygen [7], although that implies that we can’t live without it.
Hmmm…maybe we can’t.


[1] http://www.amazon.com/Computer-Silliman-Memorial-Lectures-Series/dp/0300181116
[2] http://conferences.sigcomm.org/sigcomm/2012/paper/mcc/p13.pdf
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things
[4] http://newsroom.cisco.com/release/1334100/Cisco-Delivers-Vision-of-Fog-Computing-to-Accelerate-Value-from-Billions-of-Connected-Devices
[5] http://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Fuel-Thinking/dp/0465018475
[6] http://www.amazon.com/The-Invisible-Future-Integration-Technology/dp/0071382240
[7] http://oxygen.lcs.mit.edu/Overview.html

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The purpose of this blog is to highlight and to explore general issues around "Cloud Computing" -- its benefits, risks, and component technologies -- and how they are evolving. I'll also periodically comment (of course!) on Oracle's Cloud Computing capabilities, resources, and cloud-related events. -- Harry J Foxwell, PhD, Principal Consultant for Cloud Computing, Oracle Public Sector HW

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