Cloud Computing: What is it?

Cloud computing is an emerging buzzword in the IT industry.  An October 28, 2008 search on Google for the phrase “Cloud Computing” returned 19,300,000 hits.   So you can see there is ample hype on this topic.  The concept is not really all that new, but it is getting lots of play right now in the media.  And rightly so…because cloud computing (or whatever it ends up being called) is the future of IT.  

There has been much debate in our industry and in the media about what Cloud Computing really is.  Thousands of articles and blogs can be found on the web where authors have attempted to define what cloud computing is.  As a result, there is much confusion as to what cloud computing really is.  Every author ends up with a definition that benefits their offerings, their magazine, their blog, or in some cases, their analyst research report.  

When you evaluate all the definitions and listen to what CIOs are looking for out of their IT systems in the future, some common characteristics surface.  From all the research I've conducted, the best definition I can come up with is that entry level cloud computing is specified as a elastically scalable, virtualized system that is rapidly provisioned with flexible pricing models.  Lets look at these characteristics in a little more detail.
1. Flexible pricing:  Utility pricing, variable payments, pay-by-consumption and subscription models make pricing of IT services more flexible
2. Elastic scaling:  Resources scale up and down by large factors as the demand changes
3. Rapid provisioning:  IT and network capacity and capabilities are – ideally automatically – rapidly provisioned using Internet standards without transferring ownership of resources
4. Advanced virtualization:  IT resources from servers to storage, network and applications are pooled and virtualized to provide an implementation independent, efficient infrastructure

One other key characteristic about cloud computing that is very important.  The complexity of the systems behind the service is hidden from the end user.  The cloud service worries about delivering the resources needed to support the service.  What the user sees is a service that they need at the time they need it.  And that service should be simple.  Users don't need to worry about all the complexity that is required to deliver the IT service to them.  

Cloud computing is already a force for basic consumer applications.  An example is Google Maps.  Think of it.  When you go to Google Maps, you don't care about the IT complexity behind the scenes.  You don't have to worry about servers, software, or storage.  You are immediately immersed into the map itself.  And what a simple service it is to understand.   Add in all the capability to search for points of interest, drag, zoom in/out, and you have a very simple, yet powerful application that can be used by one person this hour, or scale up to handle a million users the next hour.

Cloud computing will move beyond the current consumer focus into the enterprise market.   Clouds will eventually enable hundreds of devices – cell phones, cars, or sensors in clothing, for example – to be the de facto interface to on-line resources and services.  Technologies supporting cloud – virtualization, automation, open standards, scalable storage and web-based computing – will allow corporate data centers to act with the efficiency of the Internet and at Web speed – faster, more nimble, and with flexibility.  And, it is a green technology model that reduces energy consumption by improving IT resource utilization, therefore requiring fewer servers to handle equivalent workloads.  

A key reason is that enterprises will adopt cloud computing is that it offers the promise of business agility.   Agility enables the business to respond quickly to customer requests for new products and services.  It also allows businesses to partner more quickly to reach new markets faster.  And it also allows businesses to quickly change in the face of competition.  

In today's fast world, new competitors, with innovative business models (e.g.  Google, Amazon, etc.), seem to be able to rapidly change their business.  To match these types of competitors, businesses must have business architecture and an IT infrastructure that is flexible enough to respond quickly to all opportunities and threats.  The emerging cloud computing concept enables businesses to become more agile because it offers the ability to get to market quickly, and with a lower capital expense.  It also assures that as demand increases, resources can be added incrementally, without the need for major architecture changes.

From an IT standpoint, business agility implies the ability to rapidly build and configure tailored solutions which span internal and external systems.  Cloud computing can enable the development of applications in real-time and then also enables them to be quickly deployed globally to any device from sensors to mobile device to PCs.  Once developed, Line of Business executives need those applications to execute in real-time, scaling to meet the needs of the business.   Follow on generations of applications must be able to handle increasingly higher amounts of data as the user base grows.  Once running, applications in the cloud offer non stop operation.  Users aren't burdened by hardware and Software upgrades.  

In the future, there will be all sorts of new types of services enabled because of computing clouds.  Services we can't even imagine right now.  The fact is that the more applications and services that are deployed in the cloud, the more opportunities there are to leverage services provided by others in the same or other clouds.

In future posts, we'll explore cloud computing in more detail, including the potential benefits of cloud computing as well as some of the adoption barriers.  

For more information on cloud computing, here are a couple links…
Economist Special Report on Cloud Computing, October 28, 2008:
IBM's chairman emeritus for the Academy of Technology, Irving Wladawsky-Berger talks about what cloud computing really is and why it's so vital today.
Business Week August 2008 Special report on Cloud Computing:
Wikipedia article on Cloud Computing