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Coming to Terms With Cloud Computing

Is "cloud computing" the next big thing in IT, or are you just a victim of "cloud wash"? Recent statements by Oracle's CEO Larry Ellison and software-licensing contrarian Richard Stallman zeroed into the phrase.

Last week, Ellison told analysts that "I can't think of anything that isn't cloud computing…it's complete gibberish.…When is the idiocy going to stop?"

On Monday, Free Software Foundation Founder Stallman told The Guardian online that cloud computing was "worse than stupidity. It's a marketing hype campaign."

There is no doubt that the term has become muddled over the past year, even as Microsoft, Google and others have built datacenters that could support the cloud computing model. Analysts looking into the matter are still grappling with the semantics.

"The word 'cloud' is nebulous. However, when you put the word 'computing' behind it, there is a legitimate definition," said Forrester analyst James Staten in a telephone interview. "Cloud computing is a genuine new IT market, but like all new markets, many competitors swarm to jump on the bandwagon. In this case, industry experts refer to it as 'cloud wash,' where new products emulate 'cloud' status with what are essentially Web services."

In a Forrester report published in March, Staten defined cloud computing as "a pool of abstracted, highly scalable, and managed compute infrastructure capable of hosting customer applications [that are] billed by consumption."

Given that definition, only a handful of current offerings are true cloud computing models. Staten says that Force.com (a continuum of Salesforce.com), Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud 2 (EC2) and Google AP Engine are poster children for cloud computing.

Salesforce.com and Microsoft's Windows Live are a Web services, meaning they offer a predefined value that is integrated or leveraged by the consumer, according to Staten. Microsoft currently has a stack of Web services differentiated by the software as a service and "software plus services" models, according to Directions on Microsoft, a Microsoft-focused analyst group.

While Amazon Web Services, Salesforce.com and Akamai continue to lead the pack into cloud computing, only rumors, according to Staten, persist that the likes of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo will follow. However, that view may change in the near future.

According to abstracts of upcoming PDC sessions, Microsoft's new Red Dog will enter the cloud space as a competitor to Amazon's EC2.

Red Dog, according to Matt Rosoff of Directions on Microsoft, will be "a set of Microsoft-hosted services for application developers that let them host their own apps [and] store data on Microsoft servers in Microsoft datacenters."

Rosoff sees this as a "very smart move" for some organizations.

"While this scenario would probably never be viable for security-conscious organizations like banks or government-military, it's a great way for startups to bootstrap new apps, and reasonable for large-scale consumer-facing Web apps as well," said Rosoff in an e-mailed statement.

Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer has suggested that the company will announce some sort of "Windows Cloud" around the time of Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in late October.

Cloud computing draws interest and speculation because it hints at an IT paradigm shift. One analogy might be the shift by electricity consumers from privately owned generators to utility grids in the 20th century. Still, such a prospect for cloud computing remains uncertain.

"I don't believe we are moving to a world of thin-client terminals accessing everything on the Internet," Rosoff said. "We'll see more of a blend of local and online storage and thick-client and server-based apps, but it's not going to be a complete replacement."

About the Author

Herb Torrens is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California. He managed the MCSP program for a leading computer telephony integrator for more than five years and has worked with numerous solution providers including HP/Compaq, Nortel, and Microsoft in all forms of media.

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