The clout of cloud: A look at why this buzz technology is buzzing

It feels like you can’t do anything these days without bumping into the elusive cloud. But just as this technology heats up for 2011 — and Microsoft makes its dedication to the cloud more clear than ever – we wanted to answer some of the bigger questions floating around.

We interviewed Laura Hansen-Kohls, Research Analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, to add some clarity to the cloud debate and find out what it means for security, enterprises and the future of your IT department.

Softchoice: How are attitudes toward the cloud changing?

Laura Hansen-Kohls (Info-Tech) : There are trends that are hot because everyone’s doing them, and then there are trends that are hot because everyone’s talking about them. The cloud has been the latter for the past year, but we’re starting to see that shift slowly. We get a lot of calls from clients who just want to check in every six months and see if it’s ready yet. I think generally, people are beginning to understand they can move some services to the cloud, just not necessarily everything – that the cloud isn’t all or nothing.

As with any new technology, startups and smaller companies are the first ones heading to the cloud. These companies have less risk because they have less to lose, and they’re finding that the cloud has given them capability they wouldn’t have been able to provide otherwise. We’re seeing the trickle up effect of the cloud taking place now as larger enterprises are starting to get interested.

Softchoice: With the perennial concerns, such as security, are people feeling less worried?

Info-Tech: It’s interesting, Info-Tech did a survey asking about concerns that people have about the cloud, and we were expecting security to be a significant one. In fact, as companies move from investigating through to deploying on the cloud, their concerns about security decrease. And for a lot of companies, they’re getting services, availability, and security in the cloud that they can’t provide internally for anywhere near the same price. On the other hand you’ve got very large enterprises that have the money and resources to design a 99.999% data center with all the bells and whistles, and they won’t get that same kind of operational value from the cloud.

Softchoice: What has evolved with the technology that is making these concerns less serious?

Info-Tech: I don’t know if it’s about the technology as much as it’s about people being more careful about what they choose to put in the cloud. They know that they can worry less about hosting a dev environment in the cloud, and when they see that it’s working pretty well, they’re willing to risk trying it on their production environment.

I think vendors are also working hard to gain the trust of large enterprises, and so you see a lot of strong SLAs and various guarantees designed to put customer concerns at rest. They’re not being as opaque about their infrastructure and security measures (within reason), so they can give potential customers an idea of what kind of environment they’re trusting their data to.

Softchoice: The next year will be all about collaboration and unified user experiences (virtualization, communication  platforms, etc). True or false?

Info-Tech: Based upon our 2010 survey data concerning collaboration and unified communications, Info-Tech Research Group definitely believes more companies will advance their collaboration strategies in 2011, by installing SharePoint, as well as advance their UC strategies. However, there are still gaps between these two strategies. Not enough organizations are coordinating their planning efforts between these two efforts, so achieving a truly unified end user experience is likely to remain elusive in 2011.

Softchoice: What will the biggest challenge be to users looking into the cloud?

Info-Tech: Honestly, I think one of the biggest challenges is the breadth of options out there. All of the vendors have different pricing models, and customers have to sift through all of that to make a decent comparison of where they are getting the best value for their money.

Softchoice: If you are already actively using Cloud for some services, what actions should you take to justify further expansion of this strategy?

Info-Tech: If you can show the amount of time, money, and resources you have saved moving a specific service to the cloud that speaks volumes in support of further expansion. Try to establish a baseline of service you can afford to provide and compare that to the same service in the cloud. At Info-Tech, we’ve argued that adopting a cloud service does not require the usual business case justification. We’ve spoken to some IT managers who are actually being mandated by the business to look at “this cloud thing” and see what they can do with it. Both IT and the business see value in the cloud, so there’s not as much convincing to be done.

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About Tobin Dalrymple

Tobin Dalrymple is a longtime Softchoice contributor and the IEF program writer living in Montreal.