What cloud computing really means

The next big trend sounds nebulous, but it's not so fuzzy when you view the value proposition from the perspective of IT professionals

Cloud computing is all the rage. "It's become the phrase du jour," says Gartner senior analyst Ben Pring, echoing many of his peers. The problem is that (as with Web 2.0) everyone seems to have a different definition.

As a metaphor for the Internet, "the cloud" is a familiar cliche, but when combined with "computing," the meaning gets bigger and fuzzier. Some analysts and vendors define cloud computing narrowly as an updated version of utility computing: basically virtual servers available over the Internet. Others go very broad, arguing anything you consume outside the firewall is "in the cloud," including conventional outsourcing.

Cloud computing comes into focus only when you think about what IT always needs: a way to increase capacity or add capabilities on the fly without investing in new infrastructure, training new personnel, or licensing new software. Cloud computing encompasses any subscription-based or pay-per-use service that, in real time over the Internet, extends IT's existing capabilities.

Cloud computing is at an early stage, with a motley crew of providers large and small delivering a slew of cloud-based services, from full-blown applications to storage services to spam filtering. Yes, utility-style infrastructure providers are part of the mix, but so are SaaS (software as a service) providers such as Salesforce.com. Today, for the most part, IT must plug into cloud-based services individually, but cloud computing aggregators and integrators are already emerging.

InfoWorld talked to dozens of vendors, analysts, and IT customers to tease out the various components of cloud computing. Based on those discussions, here's a rough breakdown of what cloud computing is all about:

1. SaaS

This type of cloud computing delivers a single application through the browser to thousands of customers using a multitenant architecture. On the customer side, it means no upfront investment in servers or software licensing; on the provider side, with just one app to maintain, costs are low compared to conventional hosting. Salesforce.com is by far the best-known example among enterprise applications, but SaaS is also common for HR apps and has even worked its way up the food chain to ERP, with players such as Workday. And who could have predicted the sudden rise of SaaS "desktop" applications, such as Google Apps and Zoho Office?

2. Utility computing

The idea is not new, but this form of cloud computing is getting new life from Amazon.com, Sun, IBM, and others who now offer storage and virtual servers that IT can access on demand. Early enterprise adopters mainly use utility computing for supplemental, non-mission-critical needs, but one day, they may replace parts of the datacenter. Other providers offer solutions that help IT create virtual datacenters from commodity servers, such as 3Tera's AppLogic and Cohesive Flexible Technologies' Elastic Server on Demand. Liquid Computing's LiquidQ offers similar capabilities, enabling IT to stitch together memory, I/O, storage, and computational capacity as a virtualized resource pool available over the network.

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