Back in 1991, before the Internet was a big deal, Ohio State University technologist Jerry Martin signalled the nascent Internet's value with an official standards document entitled "There's gold in them thar networks!" ( RFC1290) Although simmering as an academic tool for years, the Internet had not yet triggered a significant paradigm shift for commercial computing. Martin's formal proclamation was an early push to business, which eventually embraced Internet commerce wholeheartedly.
Cloud computing promises a similar, if not equivalent, kick in the paradigm, by shifting fundamental IT infrastructure from on-site, hands-on servers, disks, and networks to off-site, ephemeral cycles, bits, and bandwidth. That transition hasn't happened yet, but many pundits see it as inevitable. The main barrier is the cloud's unproven reliability -- IT is loathe to put all the corporate computational jewels in a vapor-lined basket.
If the cloud isn't yet ready to take on traditional business tasks, does it have value to IT? Yes, it turns out. The cloud is full of resources that IT can use for its own purposes, from help-desk ticketing to disaster recovery.
As with early Internet adopters, IT shops have found the nascent cloud full of golden nuggets worth mining. The three primary cloud services identified in an analysis of 2008 cloud developments -- infrastructure services, software as a service (SaaS), and development platforms as a service -- provide a slew of labor- and cost-saving options for harried IT managers.
The cloud's many useful tools for use by IT itself
Many an IT project starts with a month-long equipment acquisition timeline, followed by another month of installation, configuration, and setup. This front-end burden is often the kiss of death for smaller tasks. Two of the salient features of infrastructure cloud services -- instant provisioning and scaling -- head this problem off at the pass.
At its most basic level, infrastructure cloud providers sell the nuts and bolts of IT on a pay-as-you-go basis: server CPU cycles, storage gigabytes, and bandwidth megabits per second. These cloud services give customers the ability to launch self-contained application environments -- servers, storage, and network connectivity -- in minutes. Providers like Amazon.com, IBM, and Sun Microsystems deliver this utility-computing capability in the form of raw servers that you configure and manage yourself.
By themselves, these infrastructure components leave a lot to be desired. Yes, they save you the time and expense of capital equipment deployment, but you're stuck with the same configuration and integration chores as before. Worse, you have to perform these tasks remotely, and you carry the burden of bandwidth bottlenecks and strange new security risks. For steady-state workloads that can't take advantage of the cloud's rapid scaling capabilities, the effort hardly seems worth the trouble.