Hype and IT go hand in hand. From local area networking to the Internet, new computing paradigms regularly come on the scene with much fanfare, only to have reality set in as the kinds of functionality and business models IT shops need take five, 10, even 20 years to evolve.
At this point, it's safe to group cloud computing in that evolutionary pantheon.
Over the last few years, technologies carrying the "cloud" label have poured into the market, promising huge reductions in investments, newfound flexibility in meeting processing demands and welcome advances in user friendliness. For many small and medium-sized companies, sales organizations and entrepreneurial IT teams, those benefits have been real. But as just about any big-company IT executive will attest, the forecast for cloud computing is murky, at best.
Sure, IT leaders will entrust their expense management and human-resources applications to software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers; turn to platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings to build niche cloud applications; or dial up infrastructure-as-a-service when they need temporary computing resources. But a host of factors is preventing the enterprise from placing mission-critical systems in the cloud.
In addition to perceived shortcomings in areas such as security, compliance and monitoring, the cloud has been undermined by the absence of a business model that fully reflects the technology's flexibility. And the growing desperation among vendors to slap the word "cloud" on any product or service that has even a single cloudlike feature has raised CIOs' skepticism.
"At this point, anyone who is offering anything Web-based has found that using the term 'cloud' in the product name will get more coverage in the media than if they described it another way," says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of research operations for IT research firm The 451 Group.
Plus, often lost amid all of the hand-wringing over definitions, pricing models and technology shortcomings is the well-known secret about the cloud: The individual components aren't all that new. SaaS? Not all that different from the application service providers of the late 1990s. Accessing pooled computing resources via the cloud? Sounds suspiciously like grid computing.
If it sounds like a market rife with confusion, well, it is. But a lot of it could be cut through if only everyone would agree on exactly what cloud computing is.
The way Kusnetzky sees it, a product or service must exhibit a number of characteristics to be considered a true cloud offering. It must be publicly accessible through any Web-connected device. It must feature programmatic interfaces and reside on a multi-tenant architecture with separation between clients. It must offer customers granular cost visibility, elasticity and rich management capabilities. And it must allow customers to rapidly provision resources through a self-service interface. "Not everything people are presenting as a cloud has these characteristics," Kusnetzky says.