What’s in a name?

Posted on September 01, 2008


By Mark Peters

You know that awkward feeling; it happens in a meeting with a client or a vendor, or with your team or your manager. When some buzzword, acronym, or industry term comes up, but you’re not quite sure of the meaning, do you ask, or do you pretend to know what everyone is talking about? Whether or not you’ve heard the term before, it can be a delicate balance and a tougher decision than any of us would like to admit: Odds are that asking is OK, but there’s always the chance that you’ll embarrass yourself if the term’s something that you should obviously know but don’t. This is an industry where one of the most important things to know is what it’s OK not to know. But if it’s something you really should know, then is the risk of embarrassment worth it?

All too often we just pass up the chance to clarify, and either stay ignorant or—which in some ways is worse—we prolong and propagate common misconceptions. Some terms, acronyms, and phrases can be confused or misunderstood, some are vague and over-generic, while others seem superficially authorative and clear, yet are not as precise as you might think. Let’s rattle through some examples.

Confusion and misunderstanding

Often, this category is just a matter of context. For instance, if you say “CX4,” do you mean the copper cable specification for 10Gig connectivity, or do you mean the new Clariion array from EMC? If you refer to “SMEs,” do you mean small- and medium-sized enterprises or subject matter experts? SaaS is an acronym that has been used to mean multiple things, while terms such as ILM and CDP may be explicit in the actual words they represent. However, they also have a myriad of interpretations as to what the terms actually mean, which is usually determined by the bias of the person using the terms.

It’s surprising that many people are still unclear about the difference between backup and archive. Backup is a copy of data taken for safety purposes, and it is kept for a predetermined length of time until it’s replaced. Or, if something does go wrong it is used to recover data and/or systems. So it’s temporary, unlike an archive, which is just long-term retained data that’s referenced as needed—for all intents and purposes it is permanent—and should itself be backed up (although not too often since it is unchanging, persistent data).

Too generic

Next, there’s a host of phrases that are either too generic or vague. It can be the usage rather than the original meaning that causes the problem (such as using flash and SSD synonymously; it’s only the latter when it’s packaged to appear to the system as a disk, or is it?). But the phrase itself can gain great acceptance without ever gaining an agreed definition. One of the best recent examples of this is “the cloud” and “cloud computing.” Since the one thing we do know is that it refers to things happening “out there” (or at least elsewhere), the temptation to be an ostrich is even stronger. Think of real clouds: There are many sorts that fit the general description, but they can provide everything from welcome shade to torrential downpours. And what’s really inside that cloud? As the saying goes, “there’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing,” and that’s down to the user, not the cloud!

More clarity, please

Finally, there are phrases that sound precise and accurate, but a little research can reveal significant variations in terms of parameters, implementation and, ultimately, end-user value. Perhaps you think that “thin provisioning” is the same from all vendors. To be sure, it’s a fairly standard conceptual approach, but it can vary significantly in extent and efficiency. Maybe you think that data de-duplication conforms to a standard, or even that it takes place in the same place in the system. However, there are pre- and post-processing approaches, applications, and appliances, and it can be done on backup and/or production data. And terms like “virtualization”—even when limited to just “storage virtualization”—are only about as accurate as if a person said he was about to play a sport or a musical instrument. Is it soccer or ping-pong, a flute, or a guitar? The differences are just as important as the similarities.

There’s no suggestion that anyone is trying to mislead in all this: It’s just that technology gets more complex, and our need for shorthand communication grows commensurately. And none of us want to appear as if we don’t know, so we unwittingly compound the confusion. And thus MAID and disk spin-down technologies become the same; global namespaces, clustered NAS, and parallel file systems all get confused, and so on.

Caveat emptor

Names, acronyms, and phrases alone are not enough; we need detail, clarity, and explanation. Don’t assume things, and don’t presume you’re the only one who’s unsure. Terminology can be tyranny, unless questioned and clarified. What something is called is somewhat irrelevant; what it is and what it does are things that matter. So, in this world of hyperbole and confusion, ask colleagues, partners, and vendors what something is and what it does, even when the name or phrase sounds like something you think you either do, or should, know.


Mark Peters is an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group (www.enterprisestrategygroup.com).

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