Five big questions about cloud computing

A lot of people scratched their heads over cloud computing this year. Here are the answers to the most persistent questions.

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But are these clouds or puffs of steam? Put the same functionality as an individual cloud service in a physical box, and you answer objections about ownership and security, but that's about it. Appliances, by definition, are isolated point solutions. If the long-term goal of the private cloud is to move, step by step, toward "cloudlike" manageability of the datacenter and the applications that run in it, then you need to start with a top-down examination of your enterprise architecture.

You'll be glad to know that most of the major consultancies will be happy to help you do that. But it's best to put this broader vision of the private cloud in context -- the "cloudification" of IT is just the latest in a long line of initiatives intended to improve processes and optimize resources over time: reengineering, service-oriented architecture, and so on. The main difference with cloud computing is that, without question, a major effort to deploy server virtualization is a step one.

3. Will cloud services replace the Microsoft desktop?

Few events in 2009 got more play than the July announcement of Google's Chrome OS, which was billed as a "cloud operating system" and potential competitor to Windows. Or, in less glorified terms, a Linux kernel with the Chrome browser as its command shell. In November the Google revealed that Chrome OS would be the software basis of a Web appliance, and that the applications running on it would be Web apps running in the browser.

In some ways, a Web appliance running browser-based apps seems like a more formidable rival to a PC running Windows and Office than, say, a PC running Ubuntu and OpenOffice. For one thing, an appliance takes off the table the whole hairy hardware compatibility question that has dogged desktop Linux from the start.

Also, the rivalry among cloud-based office suites is heating up. In October, InfoWorld's Neil McAllister wrote a comparative review of three browser-based alternatives, Microsoft Office Web Apps, Google Docs, and Zoho. His conclusion, however, was clear: "When it came down to it, none of the three Web-based productivity suites I tried proved an adequate substitute for traditional desktop software."

But what about the long haul? HTML 5 promises ever richer Web applications -- and Google makes a big deal about Chrome OS supporting HTML 5. For the immediate future, browser-based office suites seem best suited for collaborating on documents rather than replacing good old Office itself. But what Larry Ellison dubbed the "network computer" 13 years ago seems a lot more plausible now than it did then.

4. Do cloud services mean the end of IT as we know it?

IT tends to scoff at cloud computing. But obviously, there's a fear factor, too. If IT is too caught up in other projects to have the resources to launch some new initiative, the business side may threaten to use a cloud service instead.

The standard line is that cloud services can shoulder nonstrategic chores, like managing e-mail or the company Web site, and free up IT time for more strategic work. As InfoWorld's Leon Erlanger noted in The tech jobs that the cloud will eliminate, the shift is likely to be very gradual, with effects similar to that of other forms of outsourcing. Larger companies are very unlikely, for example, to move their core financials to the cloud in the foreseeable future.

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