Whatever people say now, the momentum building behind cloud computing will make it hard for enterprise IT to resist, says Jason Hiner.
Ask IT leaders anything that involves the term 'cloud computing', and the usual reaction is a mixture of, "oh, here we go again" and "you obviously don't know much about IT if you're asking me this".
Even those who give a noncommittal response are probably thinking they would rather gouge out their eyes than turn over their company's most important applications to a vendor to host over the internet. Why? Because it is all about control.
Of course, chief information officers are not Luddite control freaks. It is not that simple. IT requires tight control and management because IT departments cannot afford to overlook any details that could lead to unplanned errors or downtime. Jobs, productivity, reputations and lots of money are at stake every day when you work in IT — and even more so when you are in charge of the whole operation.
There is also the little issue of data. IT leaders do not trust online vendors with the company data, including everything from customer information to legal documents to intellectual property and trade secrets. What of compliance? If information is not handled properly and is in violation of financial or data protection regulations, who is responsible?
What happens when the internet goes down and all your workers are left twiddling their thumbs because they cannot access the company's most important application? That is the other big deal-breaker for IT leaders when they look at cloud computing.
However, over the next five years, we should expect CIOs to change their tune, because most of the technology obstacles will be removed and there will be a big financial incentive to make the switch. Here are the top four reasons why IT leaders will shift to cloud computing:
1. Separation of data from apps
It is quite possible that in the next few years we will increasingly see the front-end of applications separated from the back-end. The front-end will be delivered in the web browser while the back-end will be powered by highly-scalable databases.
As wide-area networks (WAN) speeds rise to over 100Mbps, bandwidth costs decrease. WAN acceleration technology drives much more efficient use of WAN pipes, so the application front-end and the back-end database will be able to exist in separate locations much more easily and effectively.
In some cases, these developments could even allow companies to host the data inside private datacentres and simply allow the front-end apps running in the cloud to tunnel in and connect to the data.
2. Offline access for online apps
The future of cloud computing applications does not lie in session-sensitive web pages that deliver applications that are unavailable when there is a hiccup in internet access or that lose a user's form data when a building contractor accidentally cuts a fibre link.
Following the example of Google Gears — and in some cases using the code — we shall see...
...the next generation of serious web applications develop an offline component in addition to the standard online component.
That offline functionality stores the application locally and caches user data, so any hiccups during a web session or connectivity outages will not interrupt work. Then when internet connectivity is restored, any work and changes made offline are simply synced with the online version of the application.
3. Ubiquitous mobile internet access
While offline functionality will be necessary for web applications in the cloud to go mainstream, significant progress will also be made over the next five years in making internet access virtually ubiquitous — or at least available anywhere you can connect to a cell tower.
The spread of the WiMax and LTE competing 4G wireless standards will bring broadband internet to remote locations and will introduce true mobile broadband connectivity to cars, buses and trains. This spread will help remove one of the psychological barriers to cloud computing: the idea that you can only use it when you are at a desk with a high-speed connection.
The arrival of more powerful and versatile smartphones and netbooks, combined with ubiquitous mobile broadband, will open up new possibilities for cloud computing that will surpass most of what is available with standard software clients — and do it at a lower cost.
4. Moving capex to opex
Speaking of costs, that brings us to the main reason why IT leaders will eventually adopt cloud computing. Scaling servers up and down is very expensive. Most IT departments buy as many servers as they will need during the company's estimated peak capacity. However, they do not need all that capacity most of the time, so many servers sit idle.
With cloud computing — and its cousin, utility computing — the equation changes. When a company needs more capacity for a peak period, it can simply buy those resources on demand. When business slows and the company needs less capacity, its bill goes down because it is using fewer resources.
In financial terms, this facility allows a company to move much of its infrastructure costs from capital expenditure (capex) to operating expenditure (opex). Capex costs are often tightly controlled since they involve depreciating assets. The advantage of using opex is that you can increase or decrease spending much more quickly and carefully.