Get your head into this cloud

Cloud computing is starting to billow, and soon could be taking the business world by storm.

Growing up in a family with a strong work ethic, I often heard variations of the phrase "keep your head out of the clouds and your feet on the ground." To my parents, if you had your head in the clouds you were a dreamer wasting your life on fantasies and unrealistic goals. The successful were those who had their feet firmly planted on the ground of reality.

There is one cloud, however, that even my parents would agree we may need to get our heads into if we want to succeed. Cloud computing is starting to billow, and soon could be taking the business world by storm.

For those not familiar with this marriage of technical and meteorological terminology, cloud computing is the name given to the ability to purchase a wide range of data resources -- from mainframe MIPS to virtual servers to data storage to applications -- from a virtual "cloud" of third-party providers. Users pay only for the amount of resources being used, and can increase or decrease capacity as needed.

The cloud-computing concept is not new. In the mid-1990s I implemented an ATM network -- Asynchronous Transport Mode, not automated teller machine -- for a large financial corporation. During the RFP process, one vendor presented a scenario in which offices and homes would use their ATM network to access public data-centers and purchase computing, storage and voice services as needed.

Fast-forward 10 years, replace the ATM network connection with MPLS/Ethernet/IP connectivity, move the public data-resources to third-party providers, and you basically have cloud computing.

Many vendors already are offering components of cloud computing. Salesforce.com and Oracle provide pay-as-you-go CRM products. Google provides a full range of office-productivity products through Google Apps. Amazon.com is beta-testing Elastic Compute Cloud, which will provide virtual servers onto which users can load software of their choice. The list grows every day as more providers enter the cloud-computing arena.

Cloud computing potentially could reduce IT costs significantly. I have been using what could be considered cloud computing -- albeit at a much smaller scale -- for a few years. I own multiple Web sites and use third-party vendors to provide hosting, database, network, storage, e-mail, and auto-responder services. I also use vendor-provided tools for site development and site management. Every year when the bill comes to pay for these services, I rerun the numbers for doing it myself; and every year I write out a check to the providers. Purchasing computing resources on an as-needed basis is significantly less expensive than doing it myself.

If you increase the scope of services from my fairly insignificant needs to those required for enterprise computing, the potential exists for companies to achieve significant savings by using cloud computing.

According to recently published reports from Gartner and Forrester Research, the impact of cloud computing will be huge, and potentially could upend IT. Both companies also note, however, that cloud computing is still evolving and needs more time to mature.

So, while I'll continue to rely on my small "cloud" to provide my Web-hosting services, I'm not ready yet to recommend that companies start disbanding their IT departments and jump on a cumulus enterprise-computing cloud. However, I do recommend that every IT group start gazing at this cloud to see what shape it takes. There may be value in getting your head into this cloud.

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