Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's not cloud computing; it's cloud commuting

Microsoft, Google, IBM, Amazon, RackSpace, and other tech giants are betting big on cloud computing. You need only enter one of those brands into Google with the word "cloud" to get a picture of just how heavily technology vendors are evangelizing and investing in this new architecture. In fact, IBM recently made an acquisition in this space.

It's generating buzz for all of the reasons any new computing model does: Cloud computing promises to shave costs with a centralized browser-based deployment model, and improve productivity with anywhere, anytime access to apps.

Analysts are hyperbolic over it, calling it the next big thing among all next big things. But most of all, cloud computing is big because users are making it big. They're flocking to cloud-based apps in droves, just as they flocked to the PC two decades ago and displaced mainframe computing with the desktop microcomputer. And where the users go, the IT industry follows.

Microsoft in particular is making a big stir as of late. CEO Steve Ballmer underscored the company's commitment to cloud computing during his keynote address Monday at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC).

Ballmer also introduced Microsoft's new Windows Azure Platform Appliance, which includes Windows Azure; SQL Azure; and a Microsoft-specified configuration of network, storage, and server hardware. A record 3,000 employees and 9,500 partners were in attendance, including me.

As I spend the week at the WPC, I'm thinking about the people who criticize the cloud computing model, and say it's too early for prime time. Security and privacy are significant concerns. But aren't they always? And despite these concerns, it's clear to me that IT leaders in the main have strong interest, and in some cases, are under pressure to move some or all of their data center to the cloud.

I am putting a stake in the ground, and predicting that the cloud will achieve critical mass in 2011, largely due to Microsoft's development efforts. This might come as a surprise to those who have watched some of Microsoft's competitors, notably Amazon and Google, emerge in this space. Microsoft certainly isn't first to market.

But in my view, it is "best to market." The company got it right with Windows Azure. It fundamentally understands how to make building apps for the cloud easier, faster, and less costly. It fundamentally understands how to seamlessly integrate cloud computing services into existing apps, as well as the new stuff. It fundamentally understands the developer, the enterprise dev team, and the independent software vendor (ISV).

Adoption of Azure is growing at a rapid clip, with over 10,000 customers now using the platform. They range from ISVs (including ProtonMedia) to the largest enterprise shops. This rush to adoption got me thinking about what will be the cloud's killer app? I've coined a phrase for what I think is the answer for life sciences. Instead of thinking cloud computing, think cloud commuting.

The life sciences enterprise is changing from siloed research and development to collaborative research and development. Companies need to consult with academia. They need to work with smaller startups. They need to cooperate with other life sciences companies, large and small, because the breakthrough developments for new compounds and drugs are not going to happen if we don't leverage the power of collaboration.

Cloud commuting means going beyond simply hosting existing applications and business models in the cloud. Changing the platform doesn't change the business outcome. It lowers costs, it improves productivity, and it makes apps more managable. But it doesn't make teams more effective, speed decisions, and reduce time to market.

And those are the non-IT business drivers that the cloud must also address. To get there, we need to look at how virtual environments can provide the socialized, secure, collaborative interface to the cloud, and increase the business value from cloud computing -- which largely benefits IT -- to cloud commuting, which benefits the entire organization.

We already see how "pass-the-baton"-based 2-D meetings with "flat" tools like WebEx and GoToMeeting are not robust enough for the complex learning and collaboration demands of distributed work groups in global organizations. While they are adequate for appointment-based meetings and presentations, they fail miserably when tasked to support the joint product development and marketing imperative that will drive life sciences in 2011 and beyond.

It's great that IT departments will soon be able to make the case that they can save their organizations money by shifting infrastructure to cloud computing. But the real value for business line leaders in these large enterprises (VPs of R&D, VPs of sales, and VPs of marketing) will come when they can increase revenue or speed product development through cloud commuting.

Integrating virtual environments, like ProtoSphere, with the cloud is the way to achieve this. This would create an ecosystem of partners and customers who can work together anytime, anywhere, without the need for local or proprietary corporate infrastructure. Think of a virtual science park; a collaborative space between otherwise competing organizations where business processes across the product lifecycle become more time- and cost-efficient.

The output of such collaboration, which might be sensitive intellectual property, needs to reside in a secure place, as opposed to being a temporary screen in an online meeting. It needs to persist in a virtual lab, virtual office, or other virtual space where teams work on it together and iterate its development.

Lastly, using virtual workplaces as a human interface to the cloud will help address many pressing issues that vex complex, cross-disciplinary and cross-company collaborations, such as security, intellectual property rights, compliance, learning, always-on persistence of information, and 3-D data visualization.

In a nutshell, cloud commuting transforms the dialogue from an esoteric, cost-cutting technology measure to a virtual place where people and organizations do business. It supports society's march toward a more collaborative, more mobile workflow.

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