The 'On-Premise' Debate: How a Data Center Slang Term Went Mainstream

How did the term ‘on-premise’ become a popular substitute for ‘on-premises’ in the tech industry? And does the grammatical error really matter today?

Data Center Knowledge

February 26, 2024

7 Min Read
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The term ‘on-premise’ is so widespread in the cloud and data center industry that it barely raises an eyebrow. From television interviews to major conference stages, CIOs, CTOs, and CEOs have long been using ‘on-premise’ as an established term when discussing digital transformation, data workflows, and where data resides in hybrid cloud architectures.

Indeed, the phrase has become so common that it’s easy to overlook the fact that ‘on-premise’ is a grammatically inaccurate truncation of the term ‘on-premises.’ And while the casual observer might question the importance of a single missing letter, there are still some who marvel at the longevity and great heights that ‘on-premise’ has achieved. 

For an industry so focused on precision, it is curious that the use of ‘on-premise’ has become so widespread. But when did this syllable-shortened alternative slip into common parlance? And does its ongoing usage really matter if the meaning remains? 

The ‘On-Premise’ Origin Story 

In a cloud and data center context, ‘on-premises’ refers to a group of servers that a business privately owns and controls. Simply put, the on-premises model refers to servers, data, or an entire data center physically located inside your corporate building. 

It’s easy to see why ‘on-prem’ became a common synonym of this term – the handy truncation coming in at a whole two syllables (50%) shorter. Somewhere along the way, however, the phrase ‘on-premise’ joined the conversation. And this theoretically should have meant something else entirely.

Related:Cloud Computing vs. On Premises: The Diminishing Differences

Back when early virtualization evangelist and former senior VMware technologist Brian Madden referenced the ‘on-premise’ phenomenon in a 2013 blog post, he was stridently against it. 

“Even today, when I hear ‘on-premise,’ it’s still a little bit like fingernails on a chalkboard because grammatically it’s not correct,” said Madden. “I was always against it, and at the time I was ‘right-fighting’ it, and saying everyone should be calling it ‘premi-ses.’ Why? Because it’s premises! I’m a rule-follower and a writer, so I like proper grammar!” 

Madden said he noticed the term gaining momentum in the mid-2010s when Citrix, the Fort Lauderdale-based virtualization software developer began using ‘on-premise’ and ‘on-premises’ interchangeably in its technical documentation and other customer-facing materials.

“Then around 2018, VMware started mixing the terms together as one and the same before finally going with ‘on premise,’ in almost every instance,” Madden recalls. “By that time, I was actually working at VMware and they were exclusively calling it ‘on-premise.’ I think the change happened because ‘on prem-i-sis,’ was just a lot of syllables to say, especially if you have to refer to it over and over again during a presentation.” 

Related:Rethink Your Data Storage Strategy: Cloud, On-premises, or Hybrid?

Adaptive Language 

While most people would recognize “for all intensive purposes” or “biting my time” as malapropisms, CIOs and even well-known tech CEOs today freely use ‘on-premise.’ 

Which version of ‘on-premises’ they use can signal how confident the speaker is regarding cloud technologies and digital transformation. IT professionals and C-Suite executives who feel they have a clear vision of the future, will likely use ‘on-premise’ to showcase their knowledge of their industry’s inside baseball lingo, and that they have a sense of where Wayne Gretzky’s proverbial hockey puck is going to be. 

It’s also potentially a way for senior executives to telegraph to those who toil amid the server racks, up and down the hot and cold aisles, that they have a connection to the important work that they do monitoring the environment and maintaining uptime.

“There are a couple of things going on with ‘on-premise,’” explains linguistics professor Betsy Sneller, who studies the evolution of language at Michigan State University. “The first is that the truncation of words is super common. And so, for something like ‘on-prem,’ most people recognize it’s a truncation. But eventually that truncation can become the actual term that is more commonly used to describe something. It’s like using ‘gas’ instead of ‘gasoline.’ We know it’s a word in place of an underlying term, but now ‘gas’ is a totally acceptable word to use.” 

Sneller added: “There are the people who use ‘on-prem,’ since they are unlikely to get any reaction to that choice. But it’s also very common to find people using ‘on-premise’ who may take a somewhat determined stance. They want you to know they aren’t going to shrink from using the term they like.” 

Indeed, many senior executives can confidently and casually say ‘on-premise’ all day long, knowing that their subordinates are likely to adopt their usage – at least temporarily – when speaking to leadership, in slide presentations, or in podcast discussions.

“Sometimes language is adaptive and sometimes it’s onomatopoetic, meaning a new word might represent a sound or a new thing – but people will also adopt a certain way of speaking to sound hip or in touch with the latest trends,” explains Georgetown University emeritus psychology professor Steven Sabat. 

“Years ago, a former colleague in the psychology department suddenly started saying: ‘What’s the ask?’ Everyone in the department raised an eyebrow and wondered: ‘What is this person talking about?’ The ASK?’ And then before you knew it, ‘the ask’ had spread around the office and nearly everyone was using it.” 

From the Workplace to the Dining Table 

While the term may still raise an eyebrow outside the data center and far from tech conference stages, it appears that ‘on-premise’ is likely here to stay. But does this industry neologism open the door for other data center terms to become part of the public lexicon? 

Ira Wells, an assistant professor of literature at the University of Toronto, suggests that during the COVID-19 pandemic, phrases said only at work found their way to the dinner table as people quickly transitioned from video conference calls to family conversations. 

“If you’ll recall during the pandemic, we were all ‘pivoting’ and talking about how many ‘cycles’ of time we had or didn’t have,” said Wells. “There were other terms during COVID that you would hear being thrown around such as ‘cascade,’ but ‘pivoting’ was one we heard non-stop.” 

And just as working from home has persisted beyond the height of the pandemic, business jargon has become a lifestyle choice and an easy shorthand even after the workday has ended. 

“I find myself using what might be considered ‘office language’ all the time,” continued Wells, whose 2011 PhD thesis at The University of Toronto focused on early American 20th Century literature and how language evolves over time. “A lot of people today will say they are going to ‘loop you in’ or ‘circle back with you,’ when they just mean they are going to give you a call. 

“It’s this modern professional argot that has ingrained itself in a professional context and is now increasingly used outside the workplace, possibly accelerated by the volume of work calls and work email that people have had to engage with while working from home.”

A Fluid Concept 

More than a decade since Madden spelled out his skepticism of ‘on-premise,’ IT professionals will now use all three terms within the same conversation or a single podcast discussion. Others will stick with one version of ‘on-premises’ and not deviate, no matter which term someone else uses. This can create an awkward situation where a tech podcast host and a guest are using dueling terms to describe the same concept but oddly never mentioning each other’s word choice. 

Anyone listening out for it may start to hear ‘on-premise’ in everyday parlance either in a discussion with a wedding planner or in some other unexpected context outside discussions of data sovereignty, ‘colocation,’ or repatriation. Just as ‘Like and subscribe’ has become a phrase that most people have heard, ‘on-premise’ may soon become ingroup slang that becomes hip and cool along with last year’s ‘rizz’ and ‘fax, no printer.’

Even so, some IT professionals today still wonder about the right way to say ‘on-premises’ and exactly when to say it.

Madden, who recently moved to Paris to join the consulting firm ILKI, says he tolerated the use of ‘on-prem,’ in conversation and in articles written for his now-shuttered website which covered the world of virtualization. If someone wanted to shorten ‘premises’ to ‘prem,’ that was clearly easier to say, and it didn’t shift the meaning. 

Ultimately, however, Madden concedes that “Nobody can change what thousands – or possibly even millions – of technology sector workers are saying.” 

“There are probably hundreds of examples throughout history – in every language – of words used in an improper way that eventually became common vernacular,” he said. “That’s just how things go.”

Reed Martin is a 1994 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and a veteran technology blogger who wrote about the data center corridor for The Charlotte Observer and catalogued dozens of high availability and disaster recovery best practices in his book The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn't Know About Making An Independent Film. Reed is based in Orange County, California. 

About the Author(s)

Data Center Knowledge

Data Center Knowledge, a sister site to ITPro Today, is a leading online source of daily news and analysis about the data center industry. Areas of coverage include power and cooling technology, processor and server architecture, networks, storage, the colocation industry, data center company stocks, cloud, the modern hyper-scale data center space, edge computing, infrastructure for machine learning, and virtual and augmented reality. Each month, hundreds of thousands of data center professionals (C-level, business, IT and facilities decision-makers) turn to DCK to help them develop data center strategies and/or design, build and manage world-class data centers. These buyers and decision-makers rely on DCK as a trusted source of breaking news and expertise on these specialized facilities.

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