Moving into the cloud, however, involves an array of challenges to IT departments that could postpone the era of idealized Web-based clouds.
The first is concern over security. Faced with increasingly stringent government regulations and several highly publicized data losses in the last year, few large enterprises are eager to entrust their core customer data to third-party providers over the Web.
A "thought shift" is required before big business will shift core business databases to the cloud, said Christophe Bisciglia, senior software engineer for cloud computing at Google. "One hundred years ago, when banks came around, people were uncomfortable with letting them keep their money," Bisciglia commented. "Today enterprises express a lot of reservations around security, and having their data in cloud."
It will take some time before such companies "realize that companies like Google and Amazon can keep the data more safe and secure, and make it more available than you can," Bisciglia asserted.
From shared infrastructure come the benefits of the cloud, agreed Joe Weinman, VP of strategic solutions at AT&T, "but also the challenges."
The second, and potentially more lasting, obstacle that must be overcome centers on control, management, and integration. Noting that moving to the cloud involves an at-times unacceptable loss of control, Sun Microsystems CTO Greg Papadopoulos displayed a slide headed "Proprietary systems all over again?"
The "storm clouds" darkening the Web-based infrastructure model, Papadopoulos said, surround the possibility of ceding control to your service provider, whether it's Salesforce.com, Google, or Amazon. In the cloud model, "They have your data; they may own your user experience; and they could require a particular monetization path."
Then there's management and integration. Consider one of the new services announced during the Structure08 conference: Cloud software provider RightScale introduced Manager for MySQL Enterprise, a product designed to enable organizations to effectively deploy MySQL databases in Amazon's EC2 Web services cloud.
The new offering is based on the premise that "most organizations do not have the expertise or resources to deploy and manage cloud computing applications cost effectively." And while it costs less than traditional software licensing, it's not cheap: RightScale's cloud management platform costs $2,500 for a one-time fee plus a base subscription fee of $500 per month.
As RightScale's marketing pitch indicates, moving applications to the cloud doesn't make traditional problems of integration and deployment magically vanish.
"It's a myth that applications all work magically together because they're delivered from the cloud," remarked Zach Nelson, CEO of business application provider NetSuite. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
The final issue is reliability. Even companies built on the cloud have suffered some embarrassing outages recently. Twitter, the "microblogging" service that has become a sensation with a subset of the Web 2.0 crowd, has been down so frequently in the last six months that one tech pundit suggested shutting it down altogether until it can be stabilized. It's unlikely that enterprises that depend on "five 9s" uptime will be willing to shift their operations to the cloud until it can be demonstrated that Web-based infrastructure is every bit as dependable as the in-house variety.
What's more, businesses like formalized arrangements. The cloud notion of simply purchasing storage and computing resources on the fly, with little human interaction or support, is simply a non-starter for most IT departments used to a higher level of touch and facetime with their suppliers.
"The idea that you don't have to talk to anybody, you can just use your credit card and get a terabyte of storage, sounds great," pointed out Geva Perry, chief marketing office of GigaSpaces. "But it's not what enterprises want. They like contracts and real billing systems, they need support and professional services, and they want a real relationship with their cloud provider."