Before cloud computing, there was software-as-a-service computing, which was a lot like its predecessor the application service provider model, which bore many similarities to remotely-hosted apps, which was akin to its predecessor, Web-based computing.

So, what is cloud computing?

Definitions, often wrapped in marketing lingo, are flying all over the Net, and while they don't clearly define cloud computing and what makes it different, they sure make it sound good. From IBM: "Cloud computing changes the way we think about technology. Cloud is a computing model providing Web-based software, middleware and computing resources on demand."

From Greenway Medical Technologies' explanation of its new cloud-based electronic health records hosting service from Dell Inc.: "Dell's cloud-based health information technology solutions simplify information, access, management and archiving for medical professionals and health care organizations."

From research firm HealthCare Performance Management Institute of Bethesda, Md.: "Cloud computing enables on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable technology resources (such as networks, servers, storage, applications and services)."

From I.T. publisher TechTarget: "Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet."

However, a cloud service has three distinct characteristics that differentiate it from traditional hosting, the definition adds. "It is sold on demand, typically by the minute or the hour; it is elastic-a user can have as much or as little of a service as they want at any given time; and the service is fully managed by the provider (the consumer needs nothing but a personal computer and Internet access)."

TechTarget takes a shot at differentiating cloud computing from previous iterations of Internet-based hosting, but some users of what's being termed "cloud computing" pay for the service not by time, but by transaction, such as per diagnostic imaging study. That brings us back to square one, searching for what really makes cloud computing different.

A feature story in Health Data Management’s March issue, examines various types of cloud computing and provider experiences.

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