Clouds are blowing your way

I spent a goodly chunk of last week in California and kept bumping into people who bandied about the term ‘cloud computing’. Without question, the phrase is heading your way. And, without question, someone will soon try and bamboozle you with it.

This is because not all clouds are equal. And some have simply replaced one techie term for another less techie one. Software as a Service, or SaaS, has been mentioned here before. Well this is a kind of junior partner in the world of clouds. More senior (and more complicated) are Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service – PaaS and IaaS respectively. You can see why the more fluffy and friendly word ‘cloud’ has been adopted as an umbrella term for them all.

The tragedy is that great swathes of people in the IT world are now able to bandy ‘cloud’ around in the same way that they bandied ‘Web 2.0′ a couple of years ago. Your job as a buyer/user of IT systems and services is to keep asking what this stuff means, what improvements are going to be delivered to the bottom line and how they’re to be delivered. Don’t let the folk in metaphorical white coats intimidate you.

If the service on offer sits apart from your day to day applications, then a bit of cloud computing might do you some good. It means someone else is able to take care of all the awkward bits – buying equipment, installing software, maintaining both, dealing with peak demands and so on. has been particularly successful with its SaaS offering. 41,000 companies use its service for customer relationship and sales tracking. Its success hinges on the fact that it can be run quite independently of other applications. It also has a PaaS offering in its AppExchange which allows other companies to add extra functionality to the underlying platform.

Other cloud computing companies, such as IaaS and SaaS provider Joyent, provide somewhere to run your applications so that they scale to meet whatever demands are placed upon them. Its own Collaboration Suite is another example of a SaaS application which runs independently of your other software. IBM, HP, Microsoft and hordes of other companies are talking cloud computing. John Willis has produced a list of 47 cloud offerings on his IT Management and Cloud blog. If this sort of thing interests you, you might also like to read Kent Langley’s take on the whole subject.

The good things about cloud computing are that they remove complexity and provisioning from the customer and they keep capital and staffing costs low. In theory, at least, they should keep operational costs low too. But I’d be worried about being locked into a service provider that gives no escape route should they decide to raise prices unreasonably.

If you’re thinking of doing anything that involves applications working together, then be very careful and make sure you have good independent advice, or rock solid guarantees from your cloud provider.

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