Thomas Edison would have loved cloud computing

January 22, 2010: 10:00 AM ET

A modest attempt to clarify the cloud.

By Ryan Nichols, Head of Cloudsourcing and Cloud Strategy for Appirio

Nichols compares cloud computing to utilities. Photo: Appirio.

It's time to bring a little clarity to the concept of "cloud computing," perhaps the most important, but least understood, technology trend of 2010.

To understand the future of technology, sometimes you have to look to the past. So let's go back to this history of electricity, with some help from Nicholas Carr: In the early 1900's, companies spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to create their own electricity on their own private infrastructure. They even had a "chief electricity officer."

Today, we just plug in and use electricity as a service, without thinking much about it. Organizations today can focus on using electricity instead of generating it.

That same shift is occurring in information technology, and it's called cloud computing.

Gartner defines it this way: It's a style of computing where scalable and elastic information technology capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers via Internet technologies.

A simple example is Google-- you get to use their services to get your job done without knowing or caring what's under the hood.

The nuclear option?

Operating a data center is becoming more and more like operating a nuclear power plant—a task best left to experts.

Google has engineers researching how to build data centers in the ocean to harness wave energy for power and cooling. Do you want to benefit from this type of innovation, or try and replicate it within your four walls?

Maintaining your own data center will someday soon seem like maintaining your own power plant-- a wasteful distraction for the vast majority of organizations (this is why focusing on building your own cloud is misguided-- a "private cloud" is just a data center with a fancy name).

Mom was right: Learn to share.

Driven by the shared infrastructure of the public cloud, industry analysts report that enterprise solutions are delivered 5X faster, with 30-50% lower TCO. At Appirio, we've helped companies use the cloud to cut their email costs in half, support massive business reorganization, and even build Web applications that can scale to handle the "Oprah effect."

One of the most compelling things about the cloud is how easy it is to get started-- here are some principles to guide your exploration of cloud computing:

  • Start small. You don't need a full enterprise architecture to get started with cloud computing. Next time you find yourself setting up a spreadsheet to track some part of your business, sign up for a free Force.com account instead. You'll quickly get a taste for what's possible.
  • Think big. Once you're convinced of the potential of cloud computing, calculate how much you'd save, for example, by switching your email and file sharing from Microsoft to Google Apps. Start building a business case-driven roadmap to the cloud.
  • Ask for help. The cloud ecosystem is a little bewildering, and many vendors have a lot to lose in the transition to cloud computing. You need clear advice and partners familiar with moving to the cloud. This kind of help is evolving into "cloudsourcing" -- where cloud computing meets outsourcing. You can outsource the migration and management of your IT infrastructure to the cloud while you focus on the business at hand.

To see where all this is headed, let's go back to electricity. Today, you probably run your business without your own power plant-- imagine running your business without your own data center.  Impossible? This is exactly the kind of transition companies of all sizes are undergoing today.

It took companies in the U.S. 50 years to move from generating 90 percent of their own electricity to consuming 90 percent from public utilities. Technology shifts happen even faster today. While it's not clear how long the shift to the cloud will take, one thing is certain-- the time to get started is now.

Nichols is responsible for delivering strategic services to customers of Appirio, a San Mateo, Calif-based provider of so-called cloud solutions.

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