Why we hate -- and need -- cloud computing

The industry's chieftans express disenchantment with 'the cloud,' but the services keep coming

It's been two months since Larry Ellison, in an onstage interview, treated the world to his latest, loudest takedown of cloud computing: "All it is is a computer attached to a network! What are you talking about? ... It's databases! It's operating systems and microprocessors and the Internet! And all of a sudden it's none of that -- it's the cloud! What are you talking about??" The audience at the Churchill Club in San Francisco roared its approval.

I used to think His Larryness would come around eventually. He has a long history of ridiculing the latest trend and, eventually, embracing it for marketing purposes. But Ellison has been singing the same mocking tune about cloud computing for a while, and now others are joining the chorus. Just recently, both HP's Mark Hurd and IBM's Sam Palmisano have indicated their dislike of the term "cloud" and its inherent fuzziness.

[ InfoWorld's David Linthicum has his own interpretation of the rant by Oracle's CEO in "Larry Ellison's cloud tirade: Why he's so scared." ]

And rank-and-file IT folks? I would say their reaction to cloud talk has gone beyond the usual snorting and eyerolling. Now they just tune out.

We all know why: Cloud computing is such a big tent that it has become a three-ring circus bursting with any technology or service, old or new, that touches the network. Is there anything revolutionary about software as a service? Or a host that lets you upload your virtual machines over the Internet and run them remotely?

If you buy InfoWorld's broad definition of cloud computing -- services sold on a subscription or pay-per-use basis over the Internet -- then the value or innovation offered by "the cloud" depends wholly on the services being offered. And so far, the focus has largely been on commodity services that duplicate common applications, development platforms, or server infrastructure.

But what about specialized Internet-based services that add new, advanced capabilities? Call them cloud computing or not, but such extensions make the value proposition a little more interesting: All the benefit of zero-footprint deployment, plus capabilities that would be difficult to obtain any other way.

I'm thinking of a recent conversation I had with Irfan Kahn, CTO of Sybase. He was talking about columnar databases -- an old idea now gaining adoption for analytical applications -- and map-reduce distributed processing techniques. Standard, SQL-based databases have well-known performance constraints. So why not just upload your SQL data to a specialized processing service in the cloud, have the provider convert it to "NoSQL" format, and run the job in a fraction of the time it would take you?

Eventually, I think cloud-based development platforms will also provide capabilities you'd be hard pressed to get elsewhere. Salesforce's Force.com already offers a unique platform for building multitenanted applications, which are recently enhanced by Flash capabilities supplied through a deal with Adobe. We're still waiting for Microsoft's Azure to take off, but if it ever gets packed with component services supplied by Microsoft and third parties, it could provide a richer development environment than you could ever provision yourself.

It may be that that the cloud label is approaching its expiration date -- and it's fair game to make fun of mundane offerings suddenly sprinkled with cloud fairy dust. But as advanced technologies become more and more complex, plugging into them through Internet-based services may well be the fastest and most cost-effective way to exploit their power.

This story, "Why we hate -- and need -- cloud computing," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in cloud computing at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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