What is Public Cloud vs Private Cloud vs Hybrid Cloud: A Survey

The Challenge

“The industry has been harping on about cloud for several years now” says I.  “Everyone in industry understands it well and even people outside of industry live with it every day”.

“I don’t think most people understand what cloud is or what it means” says marketing manager, Angelika Tarasiuk.

So we set out to do an informal survey to test my theory.

Spoiler alert: It turns out that she was right and that I was very wrong.  I hate being wrong.

I sent out emails to a collection of friends and colleagues from outside the IT industry, and another email to a group who live and breathe IT for a living.  I asked each group to describe (without the help of Google) what they thought might be the difference between public, private and hybrid cloud.  The exact text of my email is below in this post.  I received 42 responses from industry, and 34 responses from outside of the industry.

What I Learned from the Non-Techie Folks

From the folks outside of the IT industry, there wasn’t a single person who accurately understood what cloud was.  Never mind the differences between public, private and hybrid.  Most folks took what seemed like a reasonable guess that the public vs private was a reference to the data’s accessibility.  Some folks did map “cloud” with various public offerings but fewer folks than I would have thought.  Out of the major global brands people came up with Google, Hotmail, Facebook and such, but the most common to be thought about was iCloud.

I wasn’t at all surprised that people who don’t live and breathe IT all day/every day couldn’t describe the differences, but I was surprised with how many really didn’t have any idea or couldn’t pull out at least some large brands as samples of some type of cloud.

What I Learned from the IT Industry Folks

Admittedly, I stacked the deck on this one.  I really only sent the email to people I respect in the industry.  The smart ones.  If you didn’t get the email, don’t be upset.  While it could be that I don’t think you’re one of the smart ones, it may also be because I just wanted a manageable list and a good cross-section.  I picked a couple of folks from each major job category and had a good sample of C-level, IT managers, consultants, students, journalists, techies and marketing/sales folks.

As a general rule, I got good answers from the industry folks.  If I’m going to make a generalization here – I got better answers from the more senior people.  This actually wasn’t what I expected.  I expected more technically accurate answers from the consultants and techies.  What I got was better answers from IT managers, journalists and c-types.  This tells me that the folks who spend their day forward looking have put a lot of time into understanding what cloud is and what it might mean or at least could mean.  The closer people are to the keyboard every day, the less time they’ve spent understanding the incoming industry technologies and future trends.  Even some of the senior (very hands-on technical) folks made assumptions about access being the differentiator just as the non-techie folks did.  This was the part that upset me a little.  Even some of the smart people out building private cloud technologies had some misconceptions on what public/hybrid cloud really was.


After this exercise, it is very clear to me that we as an IT industry have a lot of education work in front of us.  It is possible that consumers may never need to understand what a cloud is.  But if that’s the case, let’s stop using the word with them.  So much consumer marketing talks about cloud in often confusing and inaccurate ways.  Please stop.

For those in the IT industry, I’m sorry to say that you’re just going to have to spend more time understanding what cloud is, what cloud isn’t and what it means to you, your company and your customers.  Sure, marketing and sales spin has made many of us jaded about cloud technologies and the future of cloud.  But it’s come a long way in the last few years and its moving fast.  Time to catch up.

As part of a response to this survey and our learnings, CMS Consulting Inc. will be launching a webinar series and we’ll be building a number of other learning and community tools.  More announcements will follow.  We clearly have to do our part to help clear the confusion.

Ps. For the most accepted definition of public vs private vs hybrid cloud read the NIST definition here: http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/nistpubs/800-145/SP800-145.pdf

Survey Responses:

A Sampling of the Non-Techie Responses

Thanks in part to my widely varied hobbies, I’m fortunate to know a lot of good people outside the world of IT.  The email below was sent to a cross-section of these folks.

My email to them:

I’m just doing a small, informal survey here to better understand what folks outside of the IT industry understand about the world of cloud computing.  I’ve used the BCC field here so nobody’s feelings are hurt being called out as being a non-techie.  J

So without googling it first… appreciate if you can flip me a sentence or two.

What is the difference between a public cloud vs hybrid cloud vs private cloud?

Don’t worry, your response will be kept anonymous.  Appreciate if you take a minute to send something back quickly.

Some of the responses:

Below I’ve included some of the responses to give blog readers a bit of a cross section of the responses.  I’ve removed content that was personal and copied only the text related to the cloud discussion.

Absolutely no idea. I’ve heard of clouds but did not know there were specific types of clouds.

At a complete guess – the public cloud allows all users to access information and a private cloud is accessible only by those given specific designation and a hybrid cloud would something like facebook where you can limit the amount of personal date accessible for certain users.

I’ve never owned an apple product, so I’ve never had the chance to play with iCloud stuff.

From what I understand the “cloud” has to do with storing your information such as computer/device setting and files (photo/music) on an internet server that can be accessed and shared between all your personal devices.    Let me know if I’m right.   So a public cloud would share these items with anyone, hybrid with a select few, and private would be just for yourself.

I think a private cloud is something like I use with my Hotmail.  I can save my documents in the ‘cloud’ instead of on my personal device.  I can also grant permission for someone else to view them in the cloud.  Or maybe that is a hybrid cloud!?

I hate you just a little for calling me a non-techie.

I don’t know the answer, but my guess would be the difference is in who has access and the type of data being stored.

A public cloud might be accessible to whomever wants to sign up for an account and might/should contain less private information (perhaps even the user relinquishes rights to the information once it is stored in the cloud).

A private cloud would be more exclusive, have levels of access, perhaps better encryption.

Public cloud is a cloud available in a public place e.g. library – anyone can access it

Private cloud can only be accessed by those with permission.

Hybrid is a mix of public and private, for example in a library access to online books might be open to anyone but access to work related material via permission only.

Techie Responses

I got a LOT of responses from industry people.  Most far too verbose to include here.  Some with a textbook of technical accuracy, some that looked like the responses above.  What I have included here is those responses that are more concise but representative of other responses.  A couple I’ve included just for humour points.  I’ve excluded any samples that are not (mostly) correct.  Unlike the responses above, I’ve added some commentary to the beginning of each response.

My email to them:

This email is being sent to you as someone I respect in the IT industry.  On the bcc is a sampling of IT folks.  Consultants, directors, managers, techies and the like.  Basically, I tried to pick out a good mix.

I’m doing a little survey to better understand what jumps into people’s heads when they think about cloud.  This isn’t a test, so please just fire back a response that jumps to mind without googling or thinking about it too much.  Just what jumps to mind.

So in a sentence or two….

What is the difference between a public cloud vs hybrid cloud vs private cloud?

Don’t worry, your response will be kept anonymous.  I know you’re busy but I’d really appreciate if you take a minute to send something back quickly.  Thx!

Some of the responses:

<My commentary: full marks.  This is a solid answer>

Public cloud = a shared service hosted by an independent company and available to be used by many participants or tenants.

Hybrid = where an application, or components of an application, are shared between a private firm’s data centre environment and an independent company’s cloud-based date centre.

Private =  where application(s) reside in a cloud-based data centre, that belongs to a private firm or is a part of a partitioned server environment hosted in an independent company’s cloud-based date centre, and is for the exclusive use of the private firm.

<My commentary: also full marks, bonus points for hybrid car humour>

Public Cloud: A cloud service, where services can be purchased by anyone.   In some cases, minimal services are offered free of change and extra or extended services can be purchased.

Private Cloud: A privately run cloud in-house cloud.  Pretty much a virtualized in-house compute environment

Hybrid Cloud:  An in-house cloud comprised of a mix of in-house cloud and public cloud

Alternate definition for Hybrid Cloud… what a poorly tuned hybrid car leaves behind  😉

<My commentary: over simplified, but maybe that’s where people need to start>

If I were just going to sit here at my desk and think about clouds, I see a Venn diagram of public v private with hybrid in the middle.  Ultimately, the difference is about who has control of the infrastructure.

<My commentary: This response represents what I think a lot of IT managers are thinking.  Of course the economic situation and flexibility is always improving, but it’s insightful all the same.>

Public Cloud – To me, this is a sales gimmick and a pain in the ass.  The words public cloud are just for service offerings that are provided via the Internet.  These generally have little customization abilities and for the most part are hyped as being cheaper than you could do yourself.  The reality is that most companies I find need customization of the service that drives the cost up and since these are multi-tenant there is a lot of cost in security, redundancy and manageability that a company doing it themselves can leave out.  Although these do not have huge capital costs I have found the operation cost are high and can actually be more expensive than doing it yourself.

A great place for these are smaller companies that do not need custom solutions or larger companies that are looking for a very specific problem to solve.

Private Cloud – Much the same as Public Cloud but an in house solution.

Hybrid cloud – Put Private and Public together.

<My commentary: This was my favourite response. Very concise.>

Public: cloud computing infrastructure controlled by someone else and open to all (PaaS, SaaS or IaaS)

Private: cloud computing infrastructure open just to you, either hosted on your own systems, or on a third party’s

Hybrid: cloud computing infrastructure spread between your own system and a third party’s designed to fail over/load balance.

<My commentary: A cynical but otherwise accurate view>

Cloud is a marketing term invented by a bunch of people who thought they could confuse the issue and sell additional services and functionality to a stagnating industry. I guess the simplest definition is distributed computing or computing services?

To make a very broad generalization:

Public cloud is where the service is hosted in the mystical Internet, where pixies and leprechauns steal your megahertz.  An example of original pubic cloud services would be Hotmail, gmail, etc. It’s distributed. housed and maintained by the service provider.

Private cloud is computing housed in a private network. This is done so Anonymous doesn’t go sticking their noses in your business quite as easily.  I akin private cloud to virtualization of systems and services inside your organization.

Hybrid is a mix of the two.  It could be temporarily leasing capacity from someplace like MS or Amazon for computing while still storing your data in your private cloud network, etc. for additional security or whatever other reason helps you sleep better at night.

<My commentary: Certainly a number of responses accused cloud of being nothing more than existing technology with new branding or had generally a negative view of cloud.  This was by far the best and most humourous from that group>

Private = you own them, run them, and bill costs proportionately to internal departments based on usage. A favorite amongst IT departments and empire builders.

Public = NSA owns it, Microsoft/Amazon bills you for it, everybody has your data but somehow no one bears responsibility for uptime or information survivability (insert references to Amazon losing customer data to disk failures). Scares the s*** out of most IT departments but for the wrong reasons (meaning job security not data privacy).

Hybrid = the worst of both worlds in a single solution 🙂

3 Responses to “What is Public Cloud vs Private Cloud vs Hybrid Cloud: A Survey”

  1. This was a great blog post Brian, I found it very useful when looking into the cloud definitions for an article about cloud terminology and how people don’t seem to be able to agree. I have referenced you several times. You can read the article here: http://blog.iweb.com/en/2014/03/private-cloud-terminology/13294.html


  1. Concise Definition for Public, Private and Hybrid Cloud | Brian's Blog - March 3, 2014

    […] to my post over the confusion of what people believe Public vs Private vs Hybrid cloud is, I thought I’d post what I’ve come up with as the simple and concise […]

  2. Navigating Cloud Terminology: Private Clouds | Hosting Blog - March 28, 2014

    […] a very interesting blog post by Brian Bourne, he asked some technical and non-technical people to define public, private and […]

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