By annie shum | February 1, 2010
Today, the Cloud era has only just begun. Despite lingering doubts, growing concerns and wide-spread confusion (especially separating media and vendor spun hype from reality), the IT industry generally views Cloud Computing as more appealing than traditional ASP /hosting or outsourcing/off-shoring. To technology-centric startups and nimble entrepreneurs, Cloud Computing enables them to punch above their weight class. By turning up-front CapEx into a more scalable and variable cost structure based on an on-demand pay-as-you-go model, Cloud Computing can provide a temporary, level playing field. Similarly, many budget-constrained and cash-strapped organizations also look to Cloud Computing for immediate (friction-free) access to “unlimited” computing resources. To wit: Cloud Computing may be considered as a utility-based alternative to an on-premises datacenter and allow an organization (notably cash-strapped startups) to “Think like a ‘big guy’. Pay like a ‘little guy’ ”.
Forward-thinking organizations should not lose sight of the vast potential of Cloud Computing that extends well beyond short-term economics. At its core, Cloud Computing is about enabling business agility and connectivity by abstracting computing infrastructure via a new set of flexible service delivery/deployment models. Harvard Business School Professor Andrew McAffee painted a “Cloudy” future for Corporate IT in his August 21, 2009 blog and cited a perceptive 1983 paper by Warren D. Devine, Jr. in the Journal of Economic History called “From Shafts to Wires: Historical Perspective on Electrification”. There are three key take-away messages that resonate with the current Cloud Computing paradigm shift. First: The real impact of the new technology was not apparent right away. Second: The transition to full utilization of the new technology will be long, but inevitable. Third: There will be detractors and skeptics about the new technology throughout the transition. Interestingly, telephone is another groundbreaking disruptive technology that might have faced similar skepticism in the beginning. Legend has it that a Western Union internal memo dated 1876 downplayed the viability of the telephone: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communications. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
The dominance of Cloud Computing as a computing platform, however, is far from a fait accompli. Nor will it ever be complete, a “one-size fits all” or a “big and overnight switch”. The shape of computing is constantly changing but it is always a blended and gradual transition, analogous to a modern city. While the cityscape continues to change, a complete “rip-and-replace” overhaul is rarely feasible or cost-effective. Instead, city planners generally preserve legacy structures although some of them are retrofitted with standards-based interfaces that enable them to connect to the shared infrastructure of the city. For example, the Paris city planners retrofitted Notre Dame with facilities such as electricity, water, and plumbing. Similarly, despite the passage of the last three computing paradigm shifts – first mainframe, next Client/Server and PCs, and then Web N-tier – they all co-exist and can be expected to continue in the future. Consider the following. Major shares of mission-critical business applications are running today on mainframe servers. Through application modernization, legacy applications – notably Cobol for example – now can operate in a Web 2.0 environment as well as deploy in the Cloud via the Amazon EC2 platform.
Cloud Computing can provide great appeal to a wide swath of organizations spanning startups, SMBs, ISVs, enterprise IT and government agencies. The most commonly cited benefits include the promise of avoiding CapEx and lowering TCO to on-demand elasticity, immediacy and ease of deployment, time to value, location independence and catalyzing innovation. However, there is no magic in the Cloud and it is certainly not a panacea for all IT woes. Some applications are not “Cloud-friendly”. While deploying applications in the Cloud can enable business agility incrementally, such deployment will not change the characteristics of the applications fundamentally to be highly scalable, flexible and automatically responsive to new business requirements. Realistically, one must recognize that the many of the challenging problems – security, data integration and service interoperability in particular – will persist and live on regardless of the computing delivery medium: Cloud, hosted or on-premises.
 “The author combed through the contemporaneous business and technology press to learn what ‘experts’ were saying as manufacturing switched over from steam to electrical power, a process that took about 50 years to complete.” – Andrew McAfee, September 21, 2009.