Head in the Cloud

Computing power is moving to the cloud. Will companies see the silver lining?

Illustration by Remy Labesque

Information technology (IT) people love to draw diagrams. You’ve probably seen some: dozens of little iconographic representations of servers, workstations, routers, and databases, all interconnected at perfect 90-degree angles. Some are true works of art.

One element in these is a big puffy white cloud, boldly stamped with the word Internet hovering over everything else. Usually, networks begin and end in the cloud, nothing more. This thinking is starting to change.

As technology has expanded, so has cloud computing. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are redrawing network diagrams, extending the Internet’s cloud-coverage beyond the corporate firewall and into a company’s internal networks. Though cloud technology has been in the pipeline for at least three years, 2009 is poised to be the year cloud computing goes mainstream.

First off, the cost benefits of the cloud seem sound, especially when you consider the fact that companies no longer need redundant and costly back up servers when they’re using offsite cloud services. They simply pay for resources as they are being used, similar to how homeowners pay to use electricity. Second, cloud computing allows for scalability that individual servers can’t match. Cloud customers essentially get a computing “fabric” that grows and shrinks to accommodate current needs.

This kind of expandable power also means users are no longer tied to a single geographic location. If you want to reduce the download time for your clients, and you have access to a cloud network, you don’t have to buy a server blade in another country; you can just buy time on one from a cloud provider. IBM, for example, can house data in cloud computing centers in Sao Paolo, Bangalore, Hanoi, and Wuxi, China, among other places. Cloud providers such as IBM can handle latency by replicating applications in different data centers the world over. If a company is expanding into South American markets, its applications can be based in Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. If it’s moving into Indian textiles, databases can be housed in New Delhi or Bangalore.

All this said, cloud computing does come with challenges. Often, application software has to be modified to run in a cloud environment. Microsoft’s Azure works only with applications written in “.net”-managed code. Sun Microsystems’ Sun Grid works only with software that runs on the Solaris operating system.

The lack of consistency has spurred a lively debate on the need for standards, which are proving to be an uphill battle with multiple players jockeying for position. IBM recently released its “Open Cloud Manifesto” with a call to make cloud computing “as open as all other IT technologies.” The initiative is backed by 50 major players, including AT&T, Cisco, Sun, and Telefonica. However, other industry giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce are notably absent, which raises questions about how effective the manifesto can ultimately be.

Also, two days following IBM’s announcement, Reuven Cohen, chief technologist and founder of Enomaly, a cloud computing infrastructure provider, announced the creation of the Cloud Security Alliance, with founding members eBay, PGP, and Qualys. Cohen even managed to get Microsoft to warm up to his proposal. Steven Martin, Microsoft’s senior director of developer platform management, who objected to IBM’s manifesto, commented, “From our perspective, this represents a fresh start on the conversation — a collaborative ‘do-over’ if you will.”

Another downside to the cloud is that users have to rely on third-party providers, which corporate IT may resist because of the lack of immediate access to their network’s hardware. Adding another layer of separation can be unsettling for an IT department without hands-on access in times of hardware failure. This also brings up a potential security risk.

David Snead, an attorney who spoke at Sys-Con’s Cloud Computing Conference & Expo in New York, highlighted some of the legal issues that the industry must tackle before cloud computing can truly take hold. “There’s no such thing as a cloud,” Snead said. “Your data is going somewhere. It’s going to an infrastructure provider. Something I don’t think a lot of companies understand when they’re sending things out to the cloud, is where it’s going and what companies are doing to stand behind it.”

Despite the challenges, cloud computing is bound to change the face of IT. With the biggest names in technology providing the infrastructure, the question is clearly not if but when information technologists will permanently move their networks into the cloud.

Brian Romanko is an associate technology director in frog’s Austin studio.