Cloud as a Utility?

AWS Cloud Tent

The idea is to leverage a seemingly inexhaustible supply of computing power, storage space and fast network connection pipes to deliver computing as a utility, much like power companies deliver electricity to all our homes and businesses.

From a technology perspective, the idea of delivering computing services from the cloud has gone mainstream. Every day, it seems, we end up hearing about or interacting with a new service or app that gets its capabilities from the ephemeral and, frankly, sometimes baffling idea of computers in the sky.

Well, okay, not exactly — advanced computing topics aren’t always known for their precision of language and clarity of meaning — but we all do use lots of online resources that are powered by servers and other computing devices that we can’t see or touch.

For consumers, these types of cloud computing-driven interactions are becoming regular and commonplace. Looking for transportation? Hail a ride from Uber or Lyft. Settle a debate? Ask your question of Siri, Cortana, Google Now or other personal assistants. Listen to your favourite tunes? Fire up Spotify, Pandora, Tidal or a host of other choices.

Cloud-based services such as Salesforce, Dropbox and hundreds more can be leveraged by businesses. Just like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, many rapidly growing companies are offering cloud computing itself as a service.

Web-based companies are writing software that take full advantage of the cloud “utility” in a way that enables them to run services on top of the infrastructure to build a business model around them.

Traditional businesses, however, have been much slower to move to this new flexible but often technically challenging type of computing. Oh, sure, there has been a lot of talk about creating “private clouds” (companies build their own web-like computing infrastructure, leveraging the same kinds of tools and methods used for the public internet but keeping everything inside their own walls), or “hybrid clouds,” which mix some elements of “private clouds” with “public clouds” hosted out on the internet. In reality, however, adoption of these new concepts has moved slower than many initially expected.

The reasons for these delays are many. First, there is the basic question of trust. Many companies have been very leery of letting their digital crown jewels outside the walls of their organisation. Not as widely discussed, but equally problematic, is the issue of job security. If projects that IT used to manage are being handled by outside cloud companies, won’t that reduce the need for some IT jobs?

Another big issue is technical complexity and limited skill sets. Many cloud computing concepts, tools, structures and methodologies can be very challenging, and traditional business IT departments simply don’t generally have enough people with the capabilities to do the work. (Of course, this relates back to job security as well.)

As time has passed, however, many businesses are starting to recognise that their fears were either unfounded or not as troublesome as they first thought. In the case of trust and security, for example, it’s becoming increasingly clear that companies that specialise in cloud computing are so highly focused on security that they’re probably going to have a safer environment than a company’s own network.

We’ve also seen the rise of companies like Rackspace and other managed service providers that can help companies that don’t necessarily have the in-house expertise to make the transition to cloud-based computing services.

Just as few companies today think of running their own power grid, there may come a day when companies will look to a highly consolidated group of compute utility companies to deliver some of the services they now provide.

The net result is that we’re turning the corner on cloud computing models becoming mainstream options in traditional businesses, as well. This represents a significant sea change that’s likely to have important repercussions within the overall business computing environment for many years to come.

On one hand, the improved flexibility that the dynamic, quickly evolving cloud computing methods can bring to businesses should help them in a number of areas, from delivering mobile versions of custom business applications more rapidly, to integrating with partners and other web services more easily.

But the move also implies that many businesses will start to slowly get out of the business of hosting their own data centres, preferring to have that computing “utility” hosted by an outside party, such as an Amazon, Microsoft or Google. For companies like HP Enterprise, Dell, Cisco and others that generate significant revenue from selling enterprise hardware to companies that have been running their own data centres, the changes could be particularly profound.

Of course, not all companies will completely move away from running their own data centres, nor will the ones that start to do so make those changes overnight. But just as few companies today think of running their own power grid, there may come a day when companies will look to a highly consolidated group of compute utility companies to deliver some of the services they now provide.

Adjusting to the potential of that new reality will keep the enterprise computing market interesting to observe for several years to come.

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