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...
...the Live Mesh middleware, but has yet to produce a coherent cross-company strategy. Of all the cloud companies, it has the most to lose from any move away from client-based computing.
IBM is another company with a comprehensive but not entirely defined cloud strategy. October saw a bunch of new products and services, including 'Bluehouse', a web-based social-networking and collaboration service designed for business.
Hoping to forge another step ahead in November, IBM launched a validation program intended to increase the company's influence in the cloud-computing arena. Using IBM's program, businesses could evaluate the reliability of cloud-based applications and services from any provider.
While IBM was making clear that it takes the cloud very seriously indeed, its major competitor was more circumspect. At HP's major software conference in Berlin in December, the head of HP software, Tom Hogan, said the cloud was not the answer to all problems. However, he acknowledged it was "a real paradigm shift", and said there are compelling reasons to deploy services over the cloud.
Meanwhile, Hogan said the company had been working hard on a cloud strategy which, attendees were told, was tied up in the company HP had bought for $13.9bn: EDS.
HP bought EDS in order to get on equal terms with IBM Global Services in the crucial services market, but the company had not been entirely clear what its strategy would be. In Berlin, executives pointed to EDS an answer not just to its current services requirements, but to future ones as well, driven by the move to the software- and services-based cloud. EDS has the datacentres HP now needs.
According to Tony Lock, programme director and analyst at Freeform Dynamics, and someone who knows quite a lot about the cloud having "followed Salesforce.com for eight years", the cloud has become synonymous with SaaS. "It fits in well with some of things that are uppermost in the minds of IT people, such as saving money and working more efficiently," he said.
That meant "using what you have and making it work better", Lock said. "Look around IT departments and you see a lot of over capacity. There are underused systems and storage everywhere, but now they can take that and use it for SaaS."
The problem for smaller companies was the loss of control over the data with cloud services, he said. "You will be running applications on somebody else's system. Large companies are much more comfortable with that than small companies."
There are other, more serious complications, Lock said. "In certain parts of Europe, including the EU, you are not allowed to let data and applications go outside the EU. I know for a fact that some people are running applications illegally becuase they don't realise that. That is not an issue at the moment, but it could become one as cloud vendors find they have to run different applications in different areas."
As Gartner found out in the survey, around the world companies are at every stage of the cloud, from not thinking about it at all to implementing it as quickly as they can as they follow the trailblazers such as Salesforece.com and Google.
In 2009 we can expect to read a lot more about the cloud, but if the analysts are to be believed, you don't have to rush to implement it. A cannier view will be to watch the numbers, filter the hype, ask hard questions and be ready to move.