Cloud computing, whereby organisations source applications, platforms or infrastructures via a "cloud" delivery model, is rising to the top of the technology agenda for companies of all sizes across almost all key verticals.
However, as with most emerging technologies, there is much confusion among IT professionals and senior business decision makers over what the concept of cloud computing actually encompasses.
Some define it as outsourcing, while others assert cloud is a strategic approach. Another group sees cloud as a business process, while some argue it is in fact an application.
In fact, there has been so much hype surrounding the cloud that many may now suspect that it is actually little more than a marketing construct.
This may be explained by the fact that considerable discussion has been devoted to the relatively narrow cloud subset represented by software-as-a-service (SaaS).
This has had the effect of obscuring the bigger cloud picture which should focus on the actual architectures, concrete applications and tangible benefits to be gained from leveraging the model.
And these strategic and tactical benefits can be highly compelling in terms of optimising IT efficiency. Indeed, cloud computing can deliver a host of advantages including improved flexibility, provision of expert support from specialist providers, greater agility and dramatically enhanced efficiency when deploying or upgrading systems.
The model can also provide organisations with improved support for services such as mobility and reduced and/or more predictable IT costs. In some cases, where services are delivered over the internet on a pay-per-use basis, up-front capital expenditure for new deployments can be all but removed altogether.
In light of these factors few are credibly arguing that the arrival of mature cloud services is not fundamentally changing the economics and the delivery mechanisms of corporate IT. Cloud technology standardises and pools IT resources and allows automation of many of the maintenance tasks that currently have to be undertaken manually. Cloud architectures facilitate elastic consumption, self-service, and pay-as-you-go pricing.
Cloud also allows core IT infrastructure to be brought into large datacentres (DCs) that can take advantage of significant economies of scale.
These can include supply-side savings from large-scale data facilities that lower costs per server. Aggregating demand for computing can smooth out peaks and troughs in demand, allowing server utilisation rates to increase and economies of scale can be leveraged from increasing the number of tenants (i.e., customers or users) to cut management and server cost per tenant.
The cloud computing model includes multiple elements and services including software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS).
As such the cloud paradigm encompasses much more than the front-end application or service that is experienced by the end user; it also includes all of the underlying back-end datacentre infrastructure components.
Given this level of complexity and diversity few vendors have the breadth of products to offer a comprehensive range of cloud technologies. One exception is Microsoft, which not only provides infrastructure services but also offers a full range of complementary platform and software services solutions.