The term cloud computing has become a constant fixture in the media – and indeed in the boardroom. It seems that you can’t have a conversation in IT without the word coming up at least once.

The reasons for this are clear; the economic outlook continues to look bleak and in these times of austerity everyone is trying to cut costs, and specifically avoid large capital expenditure, while still trying to do things more quickly.

Cloud in its truest form, with its promises of reduced CAPEX and increased IT scalability, can deliver on this. But, and it’s a big but, we are increasingly seeing things being associated with cloud that simply don’t fit into the model of cloud computing.

It’s almost like cloud is a magical term and if it’s used to describe your technology, riches will befall you. Well I think that’s the hope of many marketing departments who are selling technology that isn’t cloud, but peddling it as if it is.

The three key benefits of the cloud model are the pay-as-you-go payment structure, its on-demand scalable nature and the self service provisioning it affords. For anyone attracted to the cloud model, these three attributes should be used as the acid test as to whether something is truly cloud or just hot air.

At an infrastructure level, we’ve seen many hosting companies launch cloud offerings but only a handful could meet the attributes outlined in our acid test. For example, many “cloud offerings” still require customers to ask the service provider’s staff to scale servers on their behalf, while others will lock customers into monthly or even annual contracts.

Many businesses have already started adopting cloud and a lot of these have enjoyed the kind of benefits they were promised. However that’s not always the case. The problem is the fake cloud scenario I describe above. Some businesses have found that the ‘cloud’ service they’ve been sold is not actually cloud at all.

Therefore, before rushing in and signing with a cloud service provider, businesses need to check that what they are signing up to really is cloud. True cloud is scalable, flexible and PAYG, but there are many supposed cloud offerings that don’t offer this. Instead, they are traditional contracts with the word ‘cloud’ included to take advantage of the buzz.

Cloud can without doubt help a business as it tries to become more cost and operationally efficient. But businesses need to be careful of fake cloud. My advice to any business is to insist on true cloud service, with fully automated self-service scaling and PAYG pricing from when they need it. The reaction of the prospective provider will tell the organisation whether this offering is truly cloud and will therefore offer the benefits they are looking for.