A year in the clouds

If we had a Trend of the Year award, cloud computing would be the lucky winner, even though what people mean by "cloud computing" remains up for grabs

If there was one big trend in 2008 -- and by that we mean the buzz phrase on the lips of every analyst and vendor -- it was cloud computing. As with all new IT trends, levels of adoption were low. But adoption of what, exactly? The most interesting thing about cloud computing is that arguments over its definition continue to rage even as customers pay actual money for it.

In April, InfoWorld offered its definition of cloud computing, which turned out to be one of the most popular stories we've ever run. (That a 950-word definition could get so much traffic speaks volumes about the level of confusion over the cloud.) We tried to keep it simple: "Cloud computing encompasses any subscription-based or pay-per-use service that, in real time over the Internet, extends IT's existing capabilities."

[ Confused about the cloud? Check out InfoWorld's quick and easy definition in "What cloud computing really means." ]

We broke cloud services into seven categories. You could easily reduce that to three: infrastructure services such as Amazon EC2; software as a service à la Salesforce; and development platforms as a service (Microsoft Azure now offers the prime example). Those are the most important service groupings, although it's worth checking out the original article to get the complete picture.

So where's the controversy? Well, on the one hand, some folks insist that cloud computing refers to infrastructure services alone, which is basically the utility computing model. Instead of buying new servers, you move virtual machines to a service provider over the Internet -- period. We see that as an unnecessarily narrow view and prefer to include SaaS and its ilk. To us, it's all about computing services, apps included, that you procure outside rather than inside enterprise.

On the other hand, some big vendors such as IBM go even broader and talk about the "internal cloud." Yes, they say, cloud services on the Internet are cloud computing, but with the right infrastructure, IT departments can deliver their capabilities to internal customers as cloud services, too. To enable that scenario, this view aggregates other IT trends, such as SOA (service-oriented architecture), virtualization, datacenter automation, and EDA (event-driven architecture) into one harmonious internal cloud.

That's a lot of technology to swallow in one gulp -- and the notion of some sort of self-running IT nirvana is easy to ridicule. But the vendors have a point: Why shouldn't internal IT resources packaged and delivered as services qualify as cloud computing? If IT can pull it off, then the internal cloud has the same contours as the external cloud.

[ Amazon actually offers three overlapping services: EC2, S3, and Simple DB. Contributor Rich Grehan breaks it all down in "Diving deep into Amazon Web Services." ]

We haven't seen major examples of internal cloud computing initiatives yet, but we've certainly examined the way customers avail themselves of cloud services delivered by external providers. "Early experiments in cloud computing" looked at the way Nasdaq and the New York Times are using Amazon's EC2 and recounted how deeply SaaS has penetrated several other organizations. More recently, contributor Dave Rosenberg offered a fascinating account of how his company decided to move as much of its operation as possible to the cloud in "Cloud computing to the max."

The InfoWorld Test Center has been busy testing cloud services, too. The majority are platform-as-a-service plays, mainly because the idea of having a new environment to play in (one instantly available without provisioning) and create new Web apps is so compelling to so many developers.

Back in May, contributor Peter Wayner evaluated Google App Engine in "Google's high-flying cloud for Python code." His conclusion was that App Engine was "best for dynamic Web sites that act as a relatively thin layer of business logic sitting on top of a data store." In September, Wayner surveyed some lesser-known, lighter-weight platforms -- JotForm, FormAssembly, Wufoo, Zoho Creator, AppJet -- that let developers build form-based Web apps without coding in "Application builders in the sky." This accompanied a detailed, stand-alone review of Coghead, a flexible XML-based platform with a slick Adobe Flex GUI for creating database-driven Web apps. Wayner followed with a review of Coghead's chief competitor, Caspio Bridge, which takes a Microsoft Access-like approach and even offers tight integration with Microsoft Office.

The mother of all cloud-based development platforms was introduced at the end of October: Microsoft Windows Azure. Strategic Developer blogger Martin Heller offered an in-depth preview of the platform just a couple of weeks ago in "Windows Azure Services Platform gives wings to .Net." Despite the completely new paradigm, Azure carries forward all the familiar tools and technologies that .Net developers are using today.

The Test Center may have gone wild with platforms in the sky, but not at the expense of reviewing infrastructure services. In July, Wayner compared four cloud-based infrastructure providers: Amazon, Google, AppNexus, and GoGrid. A month later, contributor Rick Grehan took a detailed look at Amazon's offering with "Diving deep into Amazon Web Services," which delivers the most incisive evaluation you'll find anywhere.

Admittedly, we didn't spend a heck of a lot of time reviewing SaaS applications (does anyone really want to know the gory details of every seasonal Salesforce release?), but contributor James Borck found occasion in May to evaluate Zoho CRM Enterprise Edition. And Curt Franklin put Google Docs and Zoho Writer, Sheet, and Show through their paces in a comparison of Microsoft Office alternatives. These cloud-based productivity apps have gotten a surprising amount of traction, mainly because of the way they lend themselves to collaborative document creation and management.

We don't expect the controversy over what cloud computing really means to end anytime soon. When you're the only exciting game in town, everyone is going to want a seat at the table, even though some players may have a slightly different game in mind. In 2009, you'll see lots more cloud computing coverage from InfoWorld, as well as a lot more adoption from companies that would rather pay a little more in operating costs than invest in infrastructure to get the new capabilities they really need.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.