While some remnants of skepticism may yet persist, cloud computing is here to stay—at least until the next "big thing" comes along to displace it. For some of us, this seems like a return to the bygone days of computing "service bureaus". Back then, the computers were very expensive and not affordable for any but the largest corporations and government. Time-sharing of machines was a well-established business and offered access based on a fee for CPU cycles and storage algorithms. If you needed an application, that fee was higher. Interestingly, people time was not the expensive part of this but the machines were.
Today, that model has inverted to where the machines are cheap, but the cost of managing them (the people) is expensive. Virtualization and network technologies make access and slicing of resources the foundation of cloud computing, whether your flavor is infrastructure or platform as a service (we used to call this "raw" computing service) or software as a service (value-added computing).
The hallmark of an industry is the completeness of the ecosystem that surrounds it. Some technologies emerge to great promise and then blink out, never establishing much of an ecosystem. That so much of an ecosystem has sprung up around cloud computing by way of companies offering services or technologies, consultants to help sort it all out and buyers seeking value in a variety of definitions, you have clear evidence that it is here to stay and not a flash in the pan. You also know something is here to stay when Oracle jumps in claiming to have done it first, better or is the market leader.
Another hallmark on an industry is the diversity of players and within this diversity the "movers and shakers" pushing the envelope and shaping the market. These consist of companies, initiatives, standards efforts and individuals. Some of them to be aware of are:
OpenStack: While there are a variety of "open" approaches to delivering the cloud under this initiative, the goals are fairly consistent in that they are meant to make implementation easier and, most importantly, portable. Most clouds or cloud technology providers have a proprietary approach meant to capture a client into their solution stack. In an industry whose principle argument is lower cost, the proprietary approach is the antithesis of where you want to be. OpenStack would presume to create standards and an architecture that if subscribed to would make it easier to leave one provider and move to another if they are not competitive.
Enterprise Data: You can't get through any technology publication without a discussion of "big data" analysis tools and delivery platforms. While not a cloud subject per se, the need of massive compute power in inconsistent intervals is driving both private clouds and public cloud providers to address this need for flexible resources that can be stood up and taken down as needed.
Cloud Storage: Whether it be for back up, production overflows or consumer mobile devices, cloud storage services are sprouting up everywhere from Microsoft's SkyDrive, Google's Gdrive, Dropbox or more compute-like services like VMware's Project Octopus, vendors are filling niches wherever they can, and the mobile device world with its anemic capacity and compute power is a large market opportunity that many firms will chase.
Amazon AWS: The company continues to lead the market for public cloud services and continues to push costs lower across a variety of service offerings. By far the largest purveyor of infrastructure as a service, they face challenges by any number of smaller companies that see profit by providing similar products with better price points and higher levels of service.
Microsoft Azure: While this is the Microsoft offering for infrastructure as a service, their Info 360 offering provides software as a service for Microsoft Office products (including Exchange for email) on another platform altogether. Clearly, Microsoft sees the many submarkets that exist in cloud and intend to play a part in all of them.
Consulting: With any new industry, fear, uncertainty and doubt along with a limited talent pool causes clients to seek external help. Consequently, the vendors of cloud components like VMware, Citrix, Cisco and Dell ramp up their consulting arms. Since these providers push their own solutions, they also carry that bias. Since clients often want an objective view, independent consultancies, such as Cloud Technology Partners, emerge. The large consulting firms like Accenture, Booz Allen and Deloitte also have entered the picture but usually with hardware and software relationships that drive their analysis.
Vertical Markets: These will ultimately shape the industry and, some would say, have done so already. Certainly, Salesforce was one of the earliest to offer its software product on a service-basis, which has now been morphed into software as a service. Any number of software vendors already have this strategy as another form of software distribution or "try before you buy" approach to marketing. A variation and verticalization of the SaaS approach is security as a service. Already a number of well-known security brands have announced offerings in this area.
Another dimension to the verticalization of markets for the cloud would be in the platform itself. A joint venture of Cisco, EMC and VMware is called Virtual Computing Environment Company (VCE). You might call this a cloud in a box since it is pre-configured and can be operational within days of delivery. If you don't mind living in the proprietary and costly world of top-tier offerings, the VCE, Vblock offerings are worth a look.
Platform as a Service: PaaS has not garnered as much attention as its cousins infrastructure (IaaS) and software (SaaS) cloud services, but there is plenty of evidence to show that this is starting to change. Google's App Engine is one example and mobility applications in general as a common technical service is one of the hot topics in the enterprise today. As IT organizations become more experienced in building these services, it will heavily influence how enterprise applications are developed. While PaaS has languished as a distant third as measured by industry spend, it is now growing at a percentage rate faster than the others.
With so many versions of the cloud, from what is offered in it to how to build it, we can expect an industry expansion for some years to come. With so many ways to realize a cloud environment, don't expect a predominant mover or shaker to come along in the form of an individual or even a company. This is likely to remain a very diffused environment and industry for the duration—at least until the next big thing comes along.
JIM MINIHAN, a pioneer of workflow and process management, is an acknowledged expert on automation of service sector enterprises and their processes. He is a partner of IMERGE Consulting and consults to private- and public-sector end-users, focusing on high-level system design, system procurement and implementation. For more information, visit www.imergeconsult.com.