Premise vs. Premises: A Modest Proposal

If you’ve ever listened to, or been involved in, a conversation about Cloud, you’re familiar with the idea that the infrastructure that runs any specific cloud can be either on-premises (local or private cloud), off-premises (remote or public cloud), or a combination of both (hybrid cloud).

If you’re familiar with that, then I feel safe predicting that you’re also familiar with the seemingly-eternal debate over whether the term is “premises”, “premise”, or if it actually matters. In this case, there is, in fact, only one correct answer.

In the rest of this article, I will:

  • Make the clear case for the correct answer
  • Explain why it does, in fact, matter
  • Discuss three approaches for handling this, including a proposed solution that, if adopted, would end the premises/premise confusion in cloud forever

The Answer

[NOTE: When I set out to write this article, I had originally planned on using the Oxford English Dictionary as my source, as it seems to be generally recognized as the leading authority among English language dictionaries.

Unfortunately, individual access to the Oxford English Dictionary online requires the purchase of a subscription that costs $295 annually, and would have made this the single most expensive blog post I’ve ever written.

So, instead, I’ll be using the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as my source.]

First, one needs to understand that English is a very confusing and difficult language. Almost every “rule” that the language has really ought to have “except when this doesn’t apply” clause appended to it…

For example, if one knew only the most basic rules of English, one would easily (and very logically) assume that the word “premises” is the plural form of the word “premise”, and, as such, would mean “more than one premise”.

However, that’s not the case. “premise” and “premises” are two different words. Not convinced? Let’s check our source:

premise:
a. A proposition antecedently supposed or proven as a basis of argument or inference; specifically: either of the first two propositions of a syllogism from which the conclusion is drawn.
b. Something assumed or taken for granted : presupposition.

premises:
a. A tract of land with the buildings thereon.
b. A building or part of a building usually with its appurtenances (such as grounds).

Put simply:

  • A premise is an idea.
  • A premises is a location.

With this in mind, it’s clear to see that when you’re trying to clarify whether cloud infrastructure is local or remote, you should be using the terms “on-premises” or “off-premises”.

The only time one should use the term “off-premise” to refer to cloud infrastructure is when one intends to imply that the infrastructure doesn’t even meet the idea of a cloud…

To echo a sentiment that a number of different people I respect have expressed in the past:

Words mean things.

Why It Matters

This is the point where some folks want to say something along the lines of:

You’re just being pedantic. Why does it matter as long as you know what the speaker/writer actually meant?

It’s hard to argue with these folks. By that I mean that it’s relatively easy to prove the case for the correct answer, but it’s hard to convince them because they’ve either already accepted that at least some degree of sloppiness in communication is acceptable, or they’ve already decided that they don’t care what the answer is.

So you won’t think I’m a total pedant, I’ll admit that there are circumstances where some degree of sloppiness in communication is acceptable. Examples include:

  • When the speaker is new to speaking English.
  • When it’s a rushed private conversation.
  • When the speaker is falling-down exhausted at the end of a long day of working hard to implement a cloud infrastructure solution in a data center.

However, there are more circumstances where no degree of sloppiness in communication is acceptable whatsoever. Examples include:

  • When you’re proposing that a customer purchase an expensive cloud solution.
  • When you’re trying to convince a customer how careful your cloud solution will be with their mission-critical data and applications.
  • When there might be any sort of legal contract involved.
  • When you want to convince the listener(s) that you really do know what you’re talking about and that they’re in good hands.

In my experience, no one is ever sloppy or failing to pay attention to details in only one area of their life — it starts to sneak into other areas as well. If one consistently uses terminology incorrectly, the listener will — consciously or unconsciously — start to believe that the speaker maybe isn’t as knowledgable in this area as they seem to think they are.

If you’re still not convinced that allowing communication sloppiness is unacceptable, let me ask you the following two questions:

  • Is it acceptable to spell a customer’s name incorrectly on a multi-million dollar proposal?
  • Is it acceptable to provide a customer with a quote that has an extra zero accidentally added to the end of the total price? (Or accidentally leave a digit out of the total price?)

No, of course it isn’t. By developing a practice, and even a discipline of being accurate, it makes you more likely to avoid other mistakes. This is the converse to sloppiness sneaking from one area into others: In my experience, no one is ever only sure to bring a degree of considered accuracy to only one area of their life — it starts to sneak into other areas as well.

So, how can one handle this issue?

Approach 1: Just Get It Right

In theory, the simplest way to handle the “premise” vs. “premises” issue would be for everyone involved with cloud technologies to just always use the correct terms for the message they’re trying to convey.

To be specific:

  • If you mean to indicate that the hardware that a cloud runs on is installed in a local data center (e.g.: private cloud), refer to it as “on-premises”.
  • If you mean to indicate that the hardware that a cloud runs on is installed in a distant data center, perhaps one owned and managed by someone else (e.g.: public cloud), refer to it as “off-premises”.

But, of course, in practice this hasn’t worked. If it had, I wouldn’t be writing this piece…

Approach 2: The “Prem” Abomination

(I’m guessing the heading probably gives away my opinion on this one…)

They most common “workaround” for avoiding the “premise vs. premises” issue I’ve seen folks use is “prem”.

These folks will refer to cloud infrastructure as being either “on-prem” or “off-prem”.

I find this solution unacceptable for two reasons:

  1. Using “premise” when “premises” is the correct word comes across as accidentally being sloppy. Using “prem” when “premises” is the correct word comes across as intentionally being sloppy.
  2. While, in fact, “prem” as an abbreviation is (much to my surprise) an actual recognized English word, it is not an abbreviation for either premise or premises, but is instead one for premier or premium.

What I hear when someone uses “on-prem” and “off-prem” is that the speaker is either too lazy, or simply doesn’t care whether or not they get things right. Neither of those is something I’d want in a cloud provider.

Approach 3: End the Confusion Forever

I understand that you might be skeptical of a claim that there is an approach that could end both the confusion and the arguing forever. I’ll admit that it does sound too good to be true, so this approach comes with a caveat:

It will only work if enough of us adopt and adhere to it.

That said, as with many things, I believe that the solution can be found by taking a step back and making things simpler.

My proposal is as follows:

We all stop using the words “premise” and/or “premises” altogether, and instead use the word “site”.

Thus, private cloud would be known because its infrastructure is on-site.

Public cloud would be recognized because its infrastructure is off-site.

The advantages of this approach are as follows:

  • It’s simple, plain, clear English.
  • It has a near-zero chance of being misunderstood.
  • It has a near-zero change of sparking some sort of debate over its correctness.
  • The listener will know right away exactly what you mean.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking — if the solution is truly this simple and elegant, why hasn’t anyone stumbled upon it before? In fact, you might even be wondering why the simplicity and clarity of “on-site” and “off-site” weren’t universally adopted in the first place.

The honest answer here is: I don’t know.

My personal theory is that in the early days of cloud technology, back when folks were still struggling to find clear ways to explain what a cloud even was, someone somewhere decided that “site” was “too basic” and that a “fancier” term was somehow needed. And so, they came to settle upon “premises” instead, and there all our problems began.

Conclusion

Often, the simplest way is the best way. I believe this is very clearly one of those instances.

As such:

I do hereby solemnly swear that I will, from this moment forward, avoid the use of the words “premises” and/or “premise” in any discussion of cloud, and will instead use the terms “on-site” and “off-site” in both my written and spoken communications.

I urge all of you reading this to do the same. Together we can end the in-fighting and the endless debates. Together we can move on to more productive — and far more interesting — conversations about cloud.

Together we can.

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