The days when organizations carefully cultivated vast data centers consisting of an endless sea of hardware and software are not over, at least not yet. However, the groundwork for their eventual transformation and downsizing is rapidly being laid in the form of something increasingly known as "cloud computing." This network-based model for computing promises to move many traditional IT capability out to 3rd party services on the network.
The promise of cloud computing has captured the industry's imagination this year for two big reasons. The first is the growing realization that cloud computing can successfully be used to strategically cut costs and drive innovation. And the second is that current offerings are getting very close to being ready for prime-time use in enterprise environments.
When Web behemoth Google officially entered the cloud computing arena back in April of this year, the space became a hot topic in IT circles almost overnight, despite the long history of availability from major vendors such as Amazon and Sun as well as a number of pioneering smaller vendors such as 3Tera and Egenera.
Other major IT players include IBM, Dell, HP, Intel, and Yahoo are all making serious investments in cloud computing research or major infrastructure Om Malik reported this week. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley is also tracking Microsoft's movement in this space with project 'Midori'.
Why was Google's entry a signature moment in cloud computing? Most likely because it brought the necessary critical mass to an industry which was growing steadily but had yet to break out into the mainstream. Google has a well-known reputation for globally scalable applications that can reliably service millions of concurrent users while successfully controlling costs and efficiency in everything from power and bandwidth to storage and processing power. So when they claimed that anyone can now "build scalable web apps on top of Google's infrastructure" it received considerable attention.
The twin challenges of driving the high costs of information technology down while providing innovative new solutions to improve the business are two forces that often come into direct opposition in the modern IT shop. Businesses must keep costs down to stay competitive while at the same time investing in new ideas that will offer compelling new products and services to those same customers.
These two objectives come into opposition since new spending (on things like R&D) is usually required to successfully innovate while at the same time the pressure is on to provide the same services for less than it cost last year. Companies have come to expect to reap the cost dividend from trends such as Moore's Law, outsourcing, and year-over-year productivity improvements.
Interestingly, it's at this very intersection of issues that cloud computing appears especially compelling. By offering easy access to more efficient IT capabilities across computing, storage, and applications while providing direct and immediate access to both external innovation and innovation capability, cloud computing offers an on-demand, scalable, and repeatable resource that can be used the solve two of the major challenges facing IT departments today. We'll see in a moment how cloud computing can help with these issues in ways that traditional on-premises computing is hard pressed to match.
Cloud computing significantly changes many aspects of enterprise computing acquisition, operations, and governance, usually though not always for the better. These aspects are:
It should be noted that the Web itself is the largest cloud computing resource in existence. Its millions of highly distributed computing nodes have been the most successful model overall in terms of providing value to 3rd party users, and not the walled-garden network providers of yore such as AOL, Prodigy, or MSN. This is likely a crucial hint as to where the ultimate future of cloud computing will lie, with an increasing emphasis on switchable, federated services and less on proprietary, centralized services. Otherwise cloud computing, though invariably based on open source products, could become the next bastion of commercial, platform lock-in.
It's difficult to have a discussion of cloud computing these days without talking about Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS). Paas, another hot acronym du jour, is essentially a cloud computing service that has been opened up into a platform that others can build upon, similar to the way that Windows or LAMP are platforms designed to be built upon. Utility computing is another common phrase in cloud computing discussions and primarily focuses on the business model of cloud computing with a "pay for what you use" model that reduces the waste and underutilization of traditional corporate data centers. While these are both important aspects of cloud computing, they don't completely describe the individual types of cloud computing capability available today.
Within cloud computing itself there are a number of distinct types of services that can be provided and current vendors in the space tend to focus on one specific area or another. It should also be noted that by selecting a cloud computing type and vendor, you are also selecting an architecture. This is a significant decision since the architecture of a cloud computing service will dictate what how it can be used, what standards are supported, the amount of lock-in that is being imposed, and the flexibility, security, performance, and just about every other aspect, including ultimately what it's possible to do.
Here are some of the types of cloud computing services that are emerging today:
One type of cloud computing tends to defy traditional categorization and that's harnessing human workers in the cloud, as a service. This is best exemplified by Amazon's intriguing offering, Mechanical Turk, which plugs thousands of people into its on-demand cloud. This model includes any service which provides a consistent, service-oriented interface over a network to interact with people in a directed, collaborative manner. This is an on-demand form of outsourcing as well a cloud-based form of crowdsourcing.
Like so many aspects of Web 2.0, the industry is moving a lot faster than most businesses are currently able to keep up with. Cloud computing, however, may offer such significant and easily accessed economic advantages that it has a good chance of being adopted a bit faster than usual. Particularly as leases come off of data center resources, many IT shops will begin to take a hard look at "cloudsourcing" part of their capabilities and operations in their next round of infrastructure improvements in an incremental fashion.
The first candidate cloud computing pilots will generally be outside of core IT and will be of secondary and tertiary importance to the organization. Forward thinking organizations will begin trying out providers and learning the cloud computing ropes, though certain organizations, like government agencies and others managing extremely vital information, will likely be the last to take the leap. Like any form of outsourcing, fully leveraging the cloud will take some time to get good at as IT departments get clarity around lock-in, security, scalability, reliability, governance, and real-world costs. However, it's clear that the forecast for enterprise IT is increasingly "cloudy" for the next few years.
Are you using or planning to use cloud computing in your organization this year? Why or why not?