Cloud computing begins to emerge from the haze

Cloud computing is piquing the interest of forward-looking IT execs

So what is cloud computing, anyhow?

Not only is cloud computing a very young technology, it's still very loosely defined. Indeed, it's sometimes hard to distinguish "the cloud" from conventional hosting, software as a service, or grid computing. For many, it simply means "something done outside my walls." What it means in practice is a collection of resources -- applications, platforms, raw computing power and storage, and managed services (like antivirus detection) -- delivered over the Internet.

In a just-published report, however, Forrester Research analyst James Staten lays out a pretty good working definition for technologists: "A pool of abstracted, highly scalable, and managed compute infrastructure capable of hosting end-customer applications and billed by consumption."

Staten, by the way, is not beating the drums for instant adoption. In fact, his report opens with this sentence: "Cloud computing is a new IT outsourcing model that doesn't yet meet the criteria of enterprise IT and isn't supported by most of the key corporate vendors." He does, however, argue that "infrastructure and operations professionals can try to ignore it, as it is just in its infancy, but doing so may be a mistake as cloud computing is looking like a classic disruptive technology."

The Forrester report cites a number of concerns that must be erased, or at least mitigated, before the technology is deemed enterprise-ready. They include worries about stability and security; the lack of big-name players offering clouds (IBM, for the moment at least, is selling tools to create clouds but does not host one); a lack of reference accounts; and thin support by software vendors.

"Given that most clouds are unique infrastructures (and in the case of Amazon, one it won't tell you a lot about), most commercial operating systems and applications are not certified on these platforms. Only XCalibre FlexiScale supports Windows, for example. Given that the infrastructures are virtualized, licensing is another issue," Staten writes.

Dipping a toe in the clouds

Despite all these issues, some enterprises are experimenting with clouds -- with or without the approval of IT management, says Staten. Clouds are being used as a way to test new services and applications and meet spikes in demand.

Cloud computing as a mainstream technology is not just around the corner. It will take a few years, and any number of potential failures, for serious IT users to separate the hype from the useful reality.

But don't be too quick to dismiss it.

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