Anyone who has looked at an IT organisational chart over the past 10 years or more will be familiar with the cloud. Since the launch of public networks, it has existed as a simple drawing, a piece of fluff which meant the larger network.
Recently, that cloud has grown tentacles. Managers, users and the IT industry at large are coming to terms with it as an entire technology that needs to be understood, acted upon and implemented.
But first they have to deal with the hype around the cloud. The IT vendors have taken to the cloud with intent, seeing it as not only the latest fuzzy IT concept with which to label anything that moves — for previous examples, see virtual, SOA, open and so on — but also as a way to re-establish some of the control they've relinquished ever since the mainframe gave way to the micro.
Despite the marketing overload, the cloud has huge and genuine potential for 2009. To realise that, we first have to realise what it is and how it works. That the cloud mixes software-as-a-service (SaaS), virtualisation and utility/grid computing is clear: the details, of interoperability, security, manageability, costings and reliability are not. Much of 2009 will be spent arguing about the mix.
As always, the big guns have something to say on the matter.
Gartner, for example, defines the cloud as a three-step process. The first step Gartner calls the 'monolithic' or early stage. Applications are either proprietary or bought in from an outside company, such as Salesforce.com, or are internally developed by a company's internal IT team.
The second step Gartner calls the 'vertical supply chain', when one cloud provider uses a service from another provider; for example, when a software vendor users Google's App Engine on top of another application. The application works vertically up or down the supply chain.
Step three, which Gartner's estimates will come after four or more years, it calls 'horizontal federation', and this will occur when smaller providers join together to gain economies of scale from the cloud. The company cites in particular the example of moving horizontally to deal with times of peak capacity.
That's how the cloud is supposed to work, according to Gartner, but who is using it? Earlier this month, Gartner conducted a survey of attitudes to the cloud among visitors to the IT Data Centre conference in Las Vegas. Some 492 answered questions and, according to Garner senior analyst Tom Bittman, some 11 percent said they could never see their company implementing cloud application in the datacentre and a quarter "thought cloud services were a post-2012 phenomena".
Around 20 percent said they were already using services in the cloud, and more than half said they think they will have external cloud services in place of what could be internal services within two years. About two-thirds said that would happen by around 2012.
Pushing at an open door
Bittman said Gartner's audience believes the cloud will follow a fairly standard phase for IT growth over the next few years, with some early adopters who will be followed by the mass in the mainstream. However, the exceptional economic conditions may give added impetus to this process — if cloud providers can demonstrate immediate and tangible benefits to the bottom line, they'll be pushing at an open door. And given the state of communications infrastructure and the maturity of desktop and web platforms, the transition may be swifter than anyone expects.
The major vendors also believe the cloud will be important and are squirting their hype around it much as a squid discharges its ink. Over the past months, they have have been outlining their strategies for the technology. As the cloud is all about software and services it was no surprise that the leading applications and system software supplier should have something to say.
In November, Microsoft announced Azure, a set of cloud services that are web-based versions of Microsoft Office applications that are intended to be less demanding on resources than current applications. The company has also shown the latest iteration of...