As someone who has been covering cloud computing since the dawn of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) I’m constantly in education mode about what is and isn’t cloud computing. To borrow an analogy from my Forrester colleague Ted Schadler’s keynote at last year’s IT Forum, the challenge is a lot like helping blind men discern an elephant through just the parts of the animal they can reach. One feels the trunk and declares it a cylindrical, yet hairy and warm snake. Blind monks discerning an elephant - WikipediaThe other calls it a strong, tough and deeply rooted tree upon feeling its hind leg. Each examiner brings their own experience and context to the challenge as well as their own judgments, then leaps to the conclusion that best fits their desires.

Many IT ops pros see the cloud as competition and quickly race to its flaws, declaring it unsafe and immature while they scheme for how to duplicate its benefits – rapid provisioning, shared infrastructure – within their own data center. Others quickly conclude that it is nothing more than virtualization and thus relabel their VMware environment “private cloud.”

Each vendor looks at cloud from within its own context declaring it either “something we’ve been offering to the market for years” or a natural outgrowth of their core value – even if the value of cloud is clearly tangential or even well beyond what they offer. The result: all are making dangerous leaps of logic that skip over the true change cloud computing represents and put all at risk of disruption.

Cloud computing, especially in the form of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS) are evolutionary steps in hosting that change both the deployment model and the business value of IT in profound ways. Those that acknowledge this and accept what truly is different about it stand to gain the most from it. But let’s be clear, cloud computing isn’t your future – it’s a new part of your overall IT portfolio.

There are lots of definitions out there purporting the scope and architecture of cloud but what’s important is to focus on what makes cloud computing a new and unique value. Simply painting pre-existing services with a wash of cloud helps no one. The fundamentals of cloud computing are more important to understand than the basic words of a definition, as they are clearly open to interpretation in the same way the elephant becomes a snake or a tree. First off, let’s get one thing straight. Cloud might be another word for the Internet, but cloud computing isn’t another word for services delivered over the Internet. We already have plenty of words for those – Internet services and web services for starters. It’s combining cloud with computing that draws out the distinction, as cloud computing is about cloud-enabling your business services via abstracted components deployed at virtual scale. Read here how Pathwork Diagnostics is creating new market value via cloud computing.

There are three core fundamentals to cloud computing which distinguish it from traditional IT and other Internet services that bring forth its different business value:

  • A standardized IT capability or service – this is a provided service, software, or infrastructure that is vended to each client exactly the same way, over and over. There’s no customizing the service for each customer. The economies of scale of cloud computing come through rote, repeatability. Sure, there may be choices of what you can provision and the means for lightweight customization atop the service being provided, but if the service provider has to custom configure it each time, the repeatability is diminished and therefore it’s not cloud computing.
  • Pay per use or metered consumption. If you have to sign a 12-month contract for the service, it’s not cloud computing. If the cost of the service stays the same no matter how much or little of it you consume, it’s not cloud computing. What differentiates cloud computing is its elasticity and your ability to match the cost of the service to your consumption. This distinction is critical as it creates new value for business services and enables new business models that simply weren’t possible before. Cloud isn’t replacing capital expense with operating expense as many cloudwashers would like you to think. It’s about replacing cap ex with flexible op ex.
  • Self-service deployment. Anyone can put a web page in front of their service and enable a “Deploy” button. That’s not self-service. The value of cloud computing is immediate customer productivity – provisioning the service to the customer in less than 15 minutes — not immediate payment followed by  the usual manual service deployment. It also implies that the customer can take advantage of the service themselves, meaning the service is intuitive and has clearly defined functionality. The implication of this fundamental means more for the service provider than the customer as this implies that service provisioning must be fully automated. And if you are going to allow auto-provisioning, you'd better have a lot of operational procedures standardized and automated as well so that service management is as efficient as possible. For the consumer it means the service is “what you see is what you get.” Take it or leave it.

I know a lot of you will argue with these fundamentals and I encourage that discussion here, via Twitter and through your own blogs. I will be defending these fundamentals in my keynote address at next week’s IT Forum by showing how your peers – enterprises, innovative startup companies and leading vendors – are leveraging cloud computing to differentiate themselves and maximize profitability. They aren’t cloudwashing, they’re cloud enabling their businesses. I’ll show you how you can follow in their footsteps. And on Friday during the Forum (and at our IT Forum EMEA in Lisbon in June), I’ll walk you through the ROI of cloud computing so you can sell the value up the chain. I’ll also help you understand how cloud isn’t the sole future of IT and why you shouldn’t try to move everything to the cloud.

Or you can choose to ignore what’s different about true cloud computing. Keep your head in the sand, cloud wash your existing services and fight for relevancy. But know that doing so exposes you and your company to the risk of being passed by those who are truly harnessing this innovation.

Your choice.

We hope to see you at Forrester’s IT Forum.