Contributing editor Bill Orr writes from Waterbury Center, Vt., and can be reached by e-mail at
Yes, says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. “Cloud computing is the story of our lifetime. Eventually all devices will be on the network,” he told an audience of software developers at a conference of IBM’s business partners. Upstart Google and old-line IBM are forging an alliance to alloy their pioneering traditions in software and hardware in the cause of revolutionizing the acquisition and delivery of information technology.
Gartner, which has studied and issued technical notes on the state of the concept, defines cloud computing as “a style of computing where massively scalable IT-enabled capabilities are delivered ‘as a service’ to external customers using internet technologies.” Basically, the hardware is pooled together and shared by all.
Microsoft, widely viewed as an arch competitor to both Google and IBM, has also joined the cause with systems for bringing cloud computing to the desktop. Addressing a technical audience last June, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates outlined his vision of applying massive web-based computing power to enterprise software as a service:
“We’re taking everything we do at the server level, and saying that we will have a service that mirrors that exactly. . . For SQL, we’ll have SQL Server Data Services, and so you can connect up, build the database. It will be hosted in our cloud with the big, big data center, and geo-distributed automatically. Today we have, in our data center, many hundreds of thousands of servers, and in the future we’ll have many millions of those servers.” This lets Microsoft become “very radical” in thinking about the kinds of software products it can offer, Gates adds.
Already Google, IBM, and Amazon are doing just that. “The robust computing platform that has been built and refined over the years by Amazon is now available to anyone, anywhere, who has access to the internet,” is how Prabhakar Chaganti, chief technical officer of Ylastic, puts it in a multipart series detailing features of Amazon’s web services, conceded to be the earliest major adopter of the cloud concept. Google is offering essentially the same shared use of its data centers with hundreds of thousands of integrated computers. IBM offers arrays of computers for internal or external computing clouds. The maiden announcement of its “Blue Cloud” system late last year was for enterprise applications in Shanghai. Amazon, IBM, and Google systems use Linux open source software.
De-hazing the “cloud”
OK, so cloud computing is the Next Big Thing. But what is it, exactly? Insiders choke on “exactly.” For example, will there be one “cloud” or many? Is it just right for large enterprises eager to get their hands on the power of those thousands of computers? Or is it a competitive dream about to come true for small startups eager to cash in on the promise of virtually zero time to market and who look forward to boasting, “Look, Ma, no IT department.”
One common metaphor for cloud computing is that it is a new kind of public utility. Others say it’s the upgraded reincarnation of the computer timesharing services of the ‘60s and ‘70s. A report by Forrester Research shows a straight-line evolution of cloud computing services, from access to the internet, to access to servers (e.g. online banking), to access to racks of equipment, to hosted application services, to hosted software as a service, and finally cloud computing, “a dynamic, internet-optimized infrastructure for hosting applications.”
Cloud computing also has its skeptics. In a New York Times article, reporter Michael Fitzgerald quotes several of them: Peter O’Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group, warns that many established companies will not save money by moving to the cloud. Alistair Croll, a partner at Bitcurrent, says companies will not be able to put data willy-nilly into the cloud because of security concerns. Even so, the Times reports that Croll thinks the cloud is here to stay. The web has become the “110 outlet” for computing, and that is a fundamental shift that could power a new cycle of technological innovation, he says. The Times uses Amazon Web Services to archive and retrieve editions of the paper from 1851 to 1922 via cloud computing.
Significantly, the Forrester report is titled “Is cloud computing ready for the enterprise?” Their answer, after interviewing some 20 vendor and user companies and 10 cloud customers, is: not yet for any but hardy early adopters. Understandable at the infancy of what Forrester says looks like “a classic disruptive technology,” there are concerns about the lack of service-level agreements (SLAs), about the fact that very few big-name players are yet ready to help legitimize the field, and of course concerns about security. “Most cloud offerings are not very enterprise friendly,” interviewees reported to Forrester. However, enterprises can comfortably use cloud computing for low-priority apps, collaboration, and R&D projects, the study finds.
Agreed-upon cloud attributes
Insiders generally agree on these attributes:
• Computing resources are provided from outside the enterprise environment. They float on clouds above legions of users who access services via the internet.
• The system is self-healing and self-governing, and so requires almost no housekeeping.
• Cloud computing is scalable from quite small to gigantic applications.
• The Great Data Center in the Sky is oriented to services (not functions), which includes storage, analytics, messaging, database management, and development tools.
• Users pay for only that they use, and they use only what they need.
• An IT staff is optional for a smaller firm and smaller applications—for now.
Gartner, in its research note, identifies three key issues:
1. How will cloud computing evolve? Over the past 15 years, IT has grown by commoditizing products within industry standards, while at the same time exploiting the potentials of virtualization, the rise of service-oriented architectures, and, most importantly, the universal popularity of the internet and its web. Viewed separately, these trends have brought isolated benefits but have not integrated the needs of those who use IT services and those who sell them. Cloud computing can free users to focus on the buying decision, which can shift from buying products that enable the delivery of some function (such as billing) to contracting with someone else to deliver that function. Whether you call it utility computing or software as a service, it’s very different from IT’s prevailing license-based on-premises model, Gartner says.
2. How will cloud computing affect IT and business strategy? With cloud computing, users can consume CPU cycles without buying computers. They can let a third party worry about maintaining storage capacities. A company like Salesforce.com can offer CRM services so clients can manage their customers without buying software or building platforms.
However, the ultimate success of cloud computing will be how the services are consumed and whether that leads to new business opportunities.
3. What vendors, markets and industries will be transformed?
Successful vendors will have become deeply competent in providing cloud/Web 2.0-centric services, even if they are now successfully delivering conventional business products such as ADP. Companies invest billions of dollars in building up their core competencies, including IT, for either consumer or business markets. With cloud computing as a core competency, an enterprise can pursue opportunities in new consumer or business markets, or in new ways to profit from existing services—such as earning advertising revenue from them. Consider Amazon, Gartner suggests. The company is famous for e-tailing books, media and other goods. It also makes its e-tailing competence available to Target. The entire business marketplace is now open to Amazon because cloud computing is a core competency.