Cloud computing: Small starts can have a big impact

Small projects are offering the first cloud wins

Despite predictions that cloud computing will change the economics and strategic direction of corporate IT, the cloud's greatest impact so far has been in focused, often small projects that owe little to visions of complex, enterprise-class, computing-on-demand services, some users and analysts say.

"What we're seeing is a lot of companies using Google Apps and Salesforce and other SaaS, and sometimes platform-as-a-service providers, to support specific applications," according to David Tapper, outsourcing and offshoring analyst for IDC. "A lot of those services are aimed at consumers, but they're just as relevant in business environments, and they're starting to make it obvious that a lot of IT functions are generic enough that you don't need to build them yourself."

By far the largest representation of mini-cloud computing is small- and mid-sized businesses using commercial versions of Google Mail, Google Apps and other ad hoc or low-cost cloud-based applications, he says. But larger companies are doing the same thing.

"Large companies will have users whose data are confidential or who need certain functions, but for most of them, Google Apps is secure enough," Tapper says. "We do hear about some very large cloud contracts, so there is serious work going on. They're not the rule though."

Your First Cloud Steps

By 2020 most people will do their work from a range of computing devices using Internet-based applications as their primary tools, in the opinion of 71 percent of the "technology stakeholders and critics" polled recently for a report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

Most respondents in the survey--picked from technology and analyst companies for their technical savvy--believe cloud computing will dominate information transactions by the end of the next decade, primarily for its ability to provide new functions quickly, cheaply and from anywhere the user wants to work, the June report says.

That may be overly optimistic but certainly isn't unreasonable, according to Chris Wolf, analyst at Gartner, Inc.'s Burton Group.

Even fairly large companies sometimes use commercial versions of Google Mail or instant messaging. When it comes to applications that require more fine tuning, porting, communications middleware or other heavy work to run on public clouds, or data that has to be protected and documented, the story is different, Wolf says.

"We see a lot of things going to clouds that aren't particularly sensitive--training workloads, dev and test environments, SaaS apps; we're starting to hear complaints about things that fall outside of IT completely, like rogue projects on cloud services," Wolf says.

Rogue Projects and Security Concerns

"Until there are some standards for security and compliance, most enterprises will continue to move pretty slowly putting critical workloads in those environments," Wolf says. "Right now all the security providers are rolling their own and it's up to the security auditors to say if you're in compliance with whatever rules govern that data."

In addition to the use of commercial could-based services, however, small, focused projects using cloud technologies are becoming more common, Tapper says.

Beth Israel Deaconness Hospital in Boston, for example, elevated a set of VMware physical and virtual servers into a cloud-like environment to create an interface to its patient-records and accounting systems, easy enough for hundreds of IT-starved physician offices to link to using only a browser.

Last year New York's Museum of Modern Art began using workgroup-on-demand computing services from CloudSoft Corp. as a way to create online workspaces for short-term projects that would otherwise have required real or virtual servers and storage on-site.

In a decade or so, cloud computing will make it clear to both IT and business management that some IT functions are just as generic when they're homegrown as when they're rented.

"Productivity apps are the same for the people at the top as the people at the bottom," Tapper says, "why buy it and make IT spend 80 percent of its time maintaining essentially generic technology?"

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