The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is trying to help.
Cloud computing is a transformative delivery model that is changing the way technology vendors, distributors, resellers, and consumers think about, approach, and implement IT systems. What exactly "the cloud" is remains a matter of debate, as there are more than two dozen definitions for cloud computing. Further, how the cloud is applied to the conventional IT channel is relatively uncharted and may ultimately prove difficult to pin down.
Escaping the cloud is almost impossible. Cloud computing is transforming the way technology vendors produce and distribute their products, as well as the way enterprises and SMB organizations consume technology. The cloud revolution is more than just "Webifying" applications. It is a fundamental shift to a new IT architecture grounded in broad availability, multi-tenancy, shared resources, and dynamic capacity. It's about changing the entire cost structure of technology from a capital expense to a recurring operational expense. And it's making technology more accessible, productive, and affordable. And that is driving its rapid adoption.
Cloud computing has morphed from a relatively limited set of Web-based services to a full gamut of business products and models. According to Gartner, the cloud computing marketplace will grow from $46.4 billion in 2008 to more than $150 billion by 2013. Gartner has also publicly predicted that 20 percent of all businesses will own no IT infrastructure by 2012 as they will have been completely transformed into near-total cloud consumers. The hype around cloud computing continues to escalate, making it increasingly difficult to separate the marketing buzz from the true implementations of technology and services via the Internet. Nearly any application or service remotely attached to the Internet is now taking on the cloud as both a descriptor and value proposition. My organization has found that 59 percent of end users and 64 percent of the channel say that cloud computing needs clearer definitions. This is not surprising.
Defining cloud computing is more than an academic exercise; it's a matter of drafting parameters of understanding among marketplace constituents that produce, support, and consume cloud-based services. Creating this shared business and technical vocabulary helps promote effective commerce among all entities in the cloud computing supply chain. Through clear and concise definitions, producers and consumers of services can develop business strategies, implementation plans, business models, and performance metrics for maximizing the potential of a revolutionary delivery system.
Numerous, often competing definitions for cloud computing exist. Most do a fine job of framing what many consider the core tenets of cloud computing, yet our recent survey found only 24 percent of end users and 29 percent of the channel believe the existing definitions are sufficient. And even these constituents say that the existing definitions are not consistent. But let's turn to the leading and most generally accepted definition. It is the one developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which provides for the essential elements and characteristics of the medium:
Cloud Computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. This cloud model promotes availability and is composed of five essential characteristics (on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity, and measured service), three service models (software as a service, platform as a service, and infrastructure as a service), and four deployment models (private cloud, community cloud, public cloud, and hybrid cloud).
As an addendum, NIST makes the following note about the nature of cloud computing:
Cloud software takes full advantage of the cloud paradigm by being service oriented with a focus on statelessness, low coupling, modularity, and semantic interoperability.
In other words, cloud computing isn't necessarily proprietary and should have near universal interoperability and communications channels to ensure access to and usability of data. I would agree yet would add that cloud computing applications, platforms, and infrastructures should guarantee interoperability of solutions, openness in standards, accessibility to resources and data, and portability to different service providers. This openness is necessary for ensuring the sustained adoption and growth of cloud computing by assuring optimal business value to customers.
However, many vendors and solution providers believe there is an opportunity to extend the NIST definition by incorporating the unique needs of the IT reseller and services channel into the model. There is no doubt the NIST definition of cloud computing is a good framing for general interpretation, particularly for enterprise consumers of Web-based services. But what it doesn't do is take the realities of the conventional channel marketplace into consideration.
But, given that it is such a dynamic medium and business model, defining cloud computing may prove as futile as chasing clouds. As such, current definitions are transient since innovations in technology and delivery will likely bring even more change.
The intent of those interested in extending the definition—and even the NIST effort before it—is to provide the channel industry with a foundational framework and understanding of cloud computing. It is our belief that this effort will spawn greater clarity about the forms and capabilities of cloud computing, the tools that measure its performance, optimized business models for delivery and support, and, ultimately, its return-on-investment rationale for consumers. But as such, we are only at the beginning for both defining and understanding the practical applications of cloud computing.