Cloud computing is poised to win the title of most popular, and populist, buzzword of 2009.
It certainly is gaining traction outside of IT. In fact, the idea of cloud computing has become so popular that executives and employees who don't even work in the IT department are starting to ask for it by name.
Budget-minded CEOs are telling IT managers to look into cloud computing to reduce the amount of expensive hardware running their data centers; CFOs are interested because they've heard the model can slash costs associated with new IT projects; tech-savvy employees are asking for it because they think it sounds cool.
To be clear, the actual number of corporations that have deployed cloud computing remains small; the Corporate Executive Board's Infrastructure Executive Council doesn't expect to see mainstream adoption — meaning at least 50% of corporations have embraced cloud computing — until 2012. And even then, they believe companies will only use some of the services that fall under the cloud computing umbrella.
Still, IT departments large and small feel obligated to at least look into cloud computing's potential to save money, reduce overhead and increase efficiency and flexibility.
What's more, those IT shops that drag their feet might find overeager users are beating them to the cloud, warns James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. For example, “application developers are using the cloud and not telling IT,” he says. To avoid being caught unaware, IT should take the lead in deciding what goes into the cloud and determining how to get it there, says Staten.
Emerging best practices
In a report published in September, Forrester Research outlined the following best practices for cloud computing:
Conduct functional and scalability testing and development work. Deploy short-lived and highly volatile Web applications. Run quick, grid-type high-performance computing analysis.
But where to start? What's the best way for an IT manager to determine whether his company's corporate culture is suited for shipping computing tasks to Web-based third parties? What expectations should service providers be required to meet? How should the success — or failure — of a cloud computing project be measured?
These are not questions to be taken lightly, since the success or failure of a company's foray into the cloud will influence corporate perceptions of the model going forward. Computerworld gathered advice from tech execs, analysts and experts on how IT managers should go about determining which of their corporations' applications, tasks or services are best suited for the cloud.
Pick a project — the right project
The Corporate Executive Board, a research and membership organization designed to support the functions surrounding CEOs, has studied corporate adoption of cloud computing through its Infrastructure Executive Council and its Data Center Operations Council, both of which are headed by practice manager Mark Tonsetic.
Tonsetic's advice to IT managers: Find a project that supports a business opportunity and could be easily moved into the cloud to save costs and resources — but it should be something that doesn't involve core competencies, and moving it offsite shouldn't create a security risk. In other words, find a project where moving some or all functions to the cloud would improve the bottom line but the company wouldn't face disaster if security or availability was compromised.
Tonsetic isn't alone in advising companies to tread lightly into the cloud. That's because there's plenty for IT departments to lose sleep over with cloud computing, such as the security risks created when companies move sensitive information beyond the limits of their own data centers. And — as proven by a number of recent high-profile outages of cloud services provided by Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others — availability is a real concern.
At The Scooter Store, provider of scooters and power chairs for people with limited mobility based in New Braunfels, Texas, Senior Vice President of IT Jay Greene has replaced the Excel spreadsheets that the remote sales representatives used to store contacts with a cloud-based customer relationship management application from Salesforce.com Inc.
Greene's staff has also worked with the company's legal department to launch a cloud-based document-tracking application that users can share with outside attorneys, and The Scooter Store's training department uses a cloud-based application to keep employee training records.
None of these projects are mission-critical or time-sensitive, involve highly confidential information, or need to be integrated with systems running in the internal data center, Greene says, making them good fits for cloud computing.
And that's as it should be, says Forrester's Staten. “Look at your portfolio of applications and services and decide which are commodities, not core competencies,” he advises. “Those are your candidates for cloud.”
While Greene has had positive experiences with his cloud computing projects so far, he's not ready to move established, mission-critical applications out of his data center. “We're at a maturity level that we've got our functionality built in-house, in a secure manner that's compliant and protects information,” he says.
Look at your applications and services and decide which are commodities. Those are your candidates for cloud.
James Staten, analyst, Forrester Research Inc. “If we were a startup, it might be more logical to consider” moving mission-critical functions to the cloud, Greene says. “You could run your business out of the cloud, you just have to be careful.”
Keep the corporate jewels in-house
Even companies that have moved big chunks of their business to the cloud are hesitant to trust the cloud with information or functions that give them a competitive advantage. Software maker Modevity LLC has moved two of its three digital rights management (DRM) applications to a software-as-a-service model. After spending a good deal of time searching for a cloud service provider with customer service reliable enough to stake its own reputation on, the West Chester, Pa.-based software vendor chose Verizon Business to deliver Modevity applications as a service to customers, says Modevity co-founder Thomas Canova.
“There are a lot of strong cloud computing services out there that have a reasonable price point, but because of the nature of the business we're in, because we're a software provider to our customers, we wanted to make sure that the service provider we selected could provide the same high level of customer service that we provide our customers,” says Canova.