Given all the cloud hype, it is little wonder that so many vendors have aligned their products and services around the concept. Yet despite the diversity of vendors claiming their piece of the cloud, there is a consistent theme running through the hype, that of flexibility. I think the most helpful way to define cloud is as a toolset that enables IT agility and business innovation. The cloud makes it possible for organizations to adapt IT systems more rapidly to meet changing business needs.
Cloud is associated with two distinct but related trends in IT: outsourcing and virtualization. Neither of these concepts is all that new. The hype around cloud represents less of a technological breakthrough than a realization of business value.
Through outsourcing to the cloud, organizations are freed from deploying some elements of IT infrastructure and entrust that to a vendor. There are several ways of doing this. Modern software is built in layers (operating system, storage, database, middleware, and application) and the cloud enables businesses to outsource at any layer.
In what used to be called the Application Server Provider (ASP) model but is now marketed as Software as a Service (SaaS), the vendor provides an application over the internet. In the past, vendors controlled complexity by limiting customization. No longer. SalesForce.com has gone to an extreme of enabling customization and now markets its application as a platform — platform as a service. The online CRM applications by Microsoft, Oracle and other vendors are likewise platforms.
Below the application layer, outsourcing storage to the cloud frees an organization from concerns around scalability, availability, and backup. This enables organizations the option to run their own applications on-premise while still benefiting from cloud computing.
Amazon has been an innovator in cloud computing by making servers available over the internet with utility-based pricing. The servers can be managed through a web-service interface. With a server provided through Amazon, businesses can run whatever software they want directly on the operating system of their choosing.
Microsoft, the largest vendor in the market for on-premise software, provides cloud computing at additional layers of the software stack. SQL Server Data Services and Azure add database and middleware to the cloud. Azure makes it possible to build an application on the .Net framework (middleware) and run it in the cloud.
For organizations unwilling to entrust their data to a vendor, virtualization makes possible internal clouds. In an internal close, the organization itself must put in place the physical infrastructure, software, and operational support to maintain the cloud. Once in place, the organization gains flexibility by severing the dependency between applications and physical infrastructure, making it possible to bring new systems on line faster.
Ultimately, there are no IT problems, only business problems. The business problem that the cloud addresses is the need for rapid change. IT should be an enabler of change but it is often the bottleneck. The complexity of maintaining a scalable, secure, and reliable IT infrastructure makes it difficult for IT to meet the demands of the business for innovation. The cloud enables agility, agility enables innovation.
For a great resource on all things cloud, see the blog of my Dell colleague Barton George.