Want to gauge how red-hot an emerging technology is? Ask people to define it. The squishier the definition, the hotter it is. Examples: service-oriented architecture, unified communications and, of course, Web 2.0. (And please, let's not even get into Web 3.0.)
In my opinion, this difficulty with definitions demonstrates that the IT landscape is changing in some fundamental and meaningful ways. Yet folks can't see to agree on which trends will result in large and lasting change.
One of the strongest candidates so far is cloud computing. I think it's fair to say that most folks have trouble defining it. (We had our own lively and inconclusive discussion about it here last week.)
In a recent IT Business Edge interview with Illuminata's Gordon Haff, the analyst says its primary characteristic is "a network abstraction layer." In other words, the end users aren't concerned with how the computing occurs at the other end of the network.
Both software-as-a-service (SaaS) and hardware-as-a-service fall under this rather broad umbrella, says Haff. The latter category appears to be morphing into an even squishier concept called "the service-oriented infrastructure," as IT Business Edge's Art Cole blogged earlier this week.
Some of the most frequently mentioned examples of cloud computing include IBM's Supercomputing On-Demand and Blue Cloud platforms, Sun's Grid Compute Utility and Amazon's Simple Storage Service and Elastic Compute Cloud.
Cloud computing's fluid nature is what makes it so hard to call, says Haff:
Over time, (cloud) applications are more suitable for more types of uses. They tend to increase penetration over time. But there is not one point where they suddenly take over. It may be that five years from now people look back and say in retrospect this was the introduction -- XYZ is the one where things really clicked. The nature of cloud computing is that there don't tend to be major product releases. It tends to be more incremental.Cloud computing won't win mass enterprise approval without a sea change in attitude, says Richard Jones of The Burton Group in another recent IT Business Edge interview. Many CIOs worry that cloud computing will lead to a loss of control and authority, a touchy subject for an executive role that seems naturally predisposed to identity crises.
Younger executives may be more comfortable than their older peers with the idea of cloud computing, says Jones:
IT grew up in the '90s. [I thought] those IT managers would have to retire and a new generation come into the market during this decade [for cloud to catch on]. That's mainly because those who started in the late '80s and early '90s all worried about security and huge virus problems. They are not about to think about putting critical systems and processes into the cloud. [The ones to do that] had to grow up with blogging, IM, the next-generation social sites and be the folks who understand how to operate in that model without getting burned.Yet even senior IT executives are warming to the idea of cloud computing -- though often at the behest of the business, says Jones:
There has been a political and attitude change with CIOs. Some was forced on them. The CFO has gained more power and the business metrics were pushed on [IT]. And so some of them have gone to the model grudgingly. They can't argue against numbers. Some see the economies of scale. That's a good trend. Now instead of static services, you can go out over the Internet, where essentially any service you need to run can be found. You can look at the cloud as a timeshare. Politically, the boundaries have broken down a bit faster.There is no question that cloud computing will usher in change for CIOs -- though it may be an unwelcome one for those not comfortable with the idea of IT as a catalyst for business transformation. Says Jones:
...the way people run the IT side of business definitely will change. They will just have to worry about the business processes necessary to run the business effectively.That's what seems to be occurring at several companies where CIOs have welcomed the use of SaaS, as I blogged in October. An Accenture executive, for example, says that because SaaS helps alleviate technical risks, it frees him to focus more on change management and other types of business risk.
The interviews with Haff and Jones are both part of an IT Business Edge Special Report that offers a number of interesting perspectives on cloud computing. The series will wrap this Friday with an interview with Dennis Quan, chief technology officer for IBM's High Performance On-Demand Computing Group. Quan will discuss how the business drivers of cloud computing often intersect with those of Web 2.0.