Cloud Computing: What's it Really Mean?
By Tony Kontzer One night recently, I found myself seated around the table at an upscale San Francisco restaurant, discussing cloud computing with a couple of people who spend a lot more time thinking about it than I do. I won't bother mentioning who they were; no one wants to think that their extemporaneous pontifications over wine and dinner will be quoted for attribution -- even when they know a journalist is present. But I feel it's my duty to share my takeaways from what was a spirited conversation.
I kicked off things as I always do when the cloud is the topic -- by asking about their activities in the cloud. Now mind you, neither of my fellow diners runs technology for a large company. One does so for a start-up online private shopping club that's raised several million dollars in private equity. The company runs its entire business -- from back-office to E-commerce -- on a cloud platform. The other acts as an outsourced IT department for nearly a dozen small companies, and runs nearly all of them on that same cloud platform.
Both shared with me perspectives on the cloud that have become common stories for smaller companies: Namely, that it has allowed them to ramp up their businesses and become competitive much quicker and more cost effectively then they ever could have otherwise. Both said they struggle with security concerns related to the cloud, but neither has run into any real security issues yet. And both share absolute certainty that the wide-scale transition of business computing to the cloud is a matter of when, not if.
What makes their unabashed enthusiasm for the cloud noteworthy is that they're from entirely different generations. The first is a 30-something technologist who's cut his teeth exclusively with Web-based businesses. The second is a 50-something who's come to the cloud via a varied career path that's seen him hold management positions at companies as diverse as PepsiCo and check-maker Deluxe Corp. The fact that two such different IT professionals both have embraced the same cloud platform says much about how mainstream the cloud has become.
But the really eye-opening moment came as we were debating what, exactly, constitutes the cloud. The younger of my dinner partners suddenly turned the tables, saying to me, "Hey, so you've been hearing us talk for a while -- but how do you define the cloud?"
The question surprised me -- mostly because my sources don't usually flip the equation by becoming the interviewers -- and after a moment's thought, I came to this: That "cloud computing" isn't as grandiose as it sounds. It's a nebulous term used to describe a very general concept, namely the idea of tapping into a utility IT model so that a company can focus on what it makes and sells, rather than investing oodles of time and energy creating its own IT environment.
I got no argument for my definition, and we proceeded to talk about how there's really no such thing as a "cloud vendor" per se. Vendors can sell you technology (or services) that improve your use of the Internet, or that help you get one step closer to cloud computing. When I left the restaurant, I had a fresh perspective on cloud computing -- that it isn't really a technology so much as it's a state of mind, one IT leaders are realizing they have to embrace, lest they be pushed aside by cloud believers.
And if you don't think a new generation of IT leaders who have "the cloud" embedded in their DNA is on its way, check out this video put together by Accenture. It's an eye-opener.