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What cloud computing means to the channel

Cloud computing could mean less hardware and software to sell in the traditional sense

Listen to IT people these days, and you might think you’ve wandered into an old Joni Mitchell song. Everybody is looking at clouds, from all sides.

Cloud computing is certainly the buzzword of the hour. Consulting firm Deloitte, in its 2009 Technology, Media and Telecommunications Predictions, talks about the browser becoming the operating system. “The historical pre-eminence of the operating system may be largely supplanted by leaner and more robust browsers. This will then allow cloud computing, software as a service and open source solutions to finally start growing at accelerated rates.”

In International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd.,’s annual predictions webinar, Vito Mabrucco – the research firm’s Canadian managing director – said: “We expect cloud computing to continue to gain mind share as well as marketing share and in the end customer share.”

I like how he phrased that – today what it has is mind share and marketing share, “and in the end customer share.” The customer share is not there today. We don’t know how soon it will be there – but IDC expects it will be, “in the end.”

In the meantime, you can’t dispute the mind share. But still, just as in the song, we really don’t know clouds at all.

You can judge how much mind share cloud computing has from the fact that Toronto recently hosted its first Cloud Computing Conference. You can judge how little we understand it by the fact that almost every speaker at that conference felt compelled – rightly, I think – to try to define cloud computing.

My favourite definition came from John Sloan, an Info-Tech Research Group analyst who keynoted the Cloud Computing Conference. Cloud computing, Sloan said, is provision of workloads from abstracted computing resources. Those resources derive from aggregated and virtualized hardware and are typically owned by third-party providers.

So software as a service is a subset of cloud computing. So is infrastructure as a service, also known as utility computing, application service providers or – if you’ve been around IT since it was called data processing – the service bureau model, in which you pay a third party for computing power. And so is platform as a service – services like RightScale, EngineYard and others that give you tools with which to run your applications on that remote utility hardware.

Today, the cloud computing reality is mostly software as a service. The other elements exist but aren’t as widespread.

There are concerns. Moving from one SaaS or infrastructure as a service provider to another, or to your own data centre, is not necessarily easy, so vendor lock-in worries many IT people. There are lingering doubts about the security of data in the cloud – especially if that data is stored in the U.S. where the USA PATRIOT act says authorities can demand to see your data and your service provider can’t even tell you it happened.

And what does cloud computing mean to the channel? It could certainly mean less hardware and software to sell in the traditional sense. Customers will still need help making things work, though. “Management is the key differentiator,” Sloan says. As always, think of providing services, not selling boxes.

And vendors pushing the cloud model should try to work with the channel, because the channel is the first point of contact for many customers, and vendors need the channel’s help in steering customers toward this new model.