It may just be time for enterprise customers to take a serious look at cloud computing. Major announcements in the past few days from Microsoft and Amazon have certainly signaled that the on-demand Internet computing model has staying power. And with a long recession looming there may be no better time to start getting familiar with something that could dramatically lower infrastructure costs.

Amazon, which has been the dominant market leader and pioneer of cloud computing, finally lifted the "beta" tag from the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and delivered an SLA for the service and support for Windows applications. It also announced plans to provide service monitoring, load balancing and automatic scaling services in the future. And Amazon’s even starting taking phone calls and providing premium support for enterprise customers. Nearly all of these capabilities have been available for months from smaller cloud players (especially those coming from an ISP background where such capabilities are commonplace).

Microsoft countered by signalling that cloud computing has such significant staying power that they are willing to bet the "Windows" brand on it. Ray Ozzie’s Windows Azure goes beyond the basic infrastructure and services of EC2 providing Visual Studio.Net developers with the promise of a complete platform for their works. This will put Microsoft in competition with EC2 as well as Salesforce.com’s Force.com platform. But Azure is just a technical preview today (aka "beta").

What these market makers have in common is massive data center footprints that allow them to support significant numbers of very large clients at huge scale and across geographies.

As Ray Ozzie put it during his keynote on Monday at Microsoft’s Professional Developer’s Conference, it is becoming exceedingly difficult for enterprise infrastructure and developer teams to manage applications at web scale. The world where latency differences between New York City and Columbus, Ohio can cost you customer loyalty and millions in revenue, getting web scale right is increasingly important and the infrastructure and operations professionals who have these skills and experience using them are becoming harder and harder to find. Cloud computing platforms from the Web Giants don’t eliminate this problem but they certainly can ease the burden considerably, and when doing it yourself means large capital investments, the appeal of a platform that delivers some degree of this on its own becomes very appealing. 

Its quickly becoming quite clear that cloud computing isn’t a passing fancy but is indeed a new computing paradigm worthy of your attention. The questions about cloud computing now shift to what percent of your application portfolio is it suited to and how easy is it consume. Most infrastucture clouds are built on a hypervisor foundation (although not VMware ESX) so any application that behaves well in a hypervisor should be suited to these clouds, but which of these need the scalability of a cloud platform or works best in a hosted environment? Most clouds are also designed to appeal to developers – not infrastructure managers – and ask I&O pros to use different tools and metaphors to get their job done.

The enterprises that are tapping into clouds today are doing so with web microsites, internal-facing projects, and  other fairly safe experiments. Most of this activity falls into the "toe in the water" variety. Further experimentation is needed for enterprises to gain comfort with this new model and these new services. If your company isn’t playing around with cloud computing platforms today, you run the risk of falling behind. Windows Azure is a significant statement of staying power for cloud computing. It’s time to shift your thinking from if you will use cloud computing to when.

By James Staten

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