Cloud Computer or Pie in the Sky?

Sometimes the headline occurs to the writer before the story, which is usually not a good sign for what is to follow. But cloud computing does seem to beg more questions than answers at this stage, so whether it remains pie in the sky is a fair question to ask. Answering it may help to clarify what it is we mean by the term cloud computing.

Two versions of remote computing were promoted in the late 1990s; the first was the local-client/remote-server model, with the rationale being: why pay for PCs stuffed with unnecessary software requiring hard disk space when it could all be handled centrally? The second was the ASP (Application Service Provider) model, a version thought to be particularly attractive to SMEs who otherwise could not afford, or did not understand how to de-bug and maintain, the software. So why this time around is cloud computing attracting so much hype? Merely fashion? Possibly not.

First, the widespread availability and affordability of broadband access and of smart devices to access the Web has changed the environment radically. Getting onto the Web is now easy. Not true of course in many developing countries, but the spread of broadband wireless access (BWA) may begin to change that as well.

Second, data storage and applications hosting are becoming commoditized, and the economics of it are finally beginning to make sense. Virtualizing, or being able to replicate a device’s processing functions in the cloud, starts to sound appealing to users, not just to the geeks who sell the stuff.

Third, the growth of applications for consumer use has expanded the market size for such “remote” services, and has also changed the possibilities of how businesses interact with their customers. This is in some ways similar to the popularization of the PC as the number of consumer applications grew, creating a broad market for IT hardware and software. The client/server and ASP models largely served a corporate market, while cloud computing is already being defined to include services that serve all segments from governments to businesses to the man in the street.

So if cloud computing seems to be here for real this time around, is this the silver lining at last? Yes and no. While the framework and benefits of cloud computing are increasingly clear, there remain issues to be tackled – privacy and security concerns will only increase as data is taken out of the hands of users, and the expanded capability of modern day clouds compared to the old models will force businesses to also ask questions about service-level agreements and also legal and cross-jurisdiction issues. Cloud coverage is increasing…. but no rain. Yet.

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