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Cloud computing still a dream?

Last week at CeBIT, representatives of some of the biggest names in IT came together for a discussion of cloud computing, which organizers suggested could be the overriding theme of this year's show.

But, while the panel were all evidently in the 'pro' corner, each to some extent pushing the agenda that the cloud is the future, this listener came away with the feeling that it's still got some way to go.

The Cloud Computing Summit saw executives from IBM, Intel, Google, VMWare and Fujitsu mull over the challenges and opportunities presented by the cloud. But while Google's Sebastian Marotte in particular was dramatically positive ("Let me give you some advice," he said. "Anything you can put on the cloud, just put it there.") barely a moment went past without someone raising a caveat, a concern or a risk.

The overall impression seemed to be, "Cloud computing will definitely happen, but let's not get carried away."

VMWare's Paul Strong made an opening address in which he claimed that cloud computing could be a revolutionary change by building on an evolution in technology. But IBM's Dirk Wittkopp responded more cautiously: "It can be a revolution, but you don't have to throw away what you have," he said.

Andre Kiehne, vice-president of services at Fujitsu, voiced a similar concept. "It's about the right combination of existing infrastructure and new cloud services," he said. "But there is life below the cloud. Cloud computing is still in the minority, and there's still a good opportunity for traditional software."

More than one of the panel executives felt that a 'hybrid model' was the right approach to cloud computing for the moment.

So what issues are holding back total adoption of the cloud computing model?

One is security; and another is reliability. Kiehne suggested that the best solution in some cases might be a 'private cloud', precisely because of the perceived problems in these two areas. Wittkopp put forward a 'shared private cloud', in which a cloud would be made available to a number of companies with mutual trust.

The internet still can't be depended on at all times, and it's understandable that users prefer the safety of hosting software on their own system. And when wireless internet is factored in, things get more worrying still; it's interesting to note that attendees had considerable problems accessing Wi-Fi in most parts of CeBIT, one of the most tech-centric places in the world, which perhaps bodes rather badly for the connected utopia we've been led to expect.

A further problem could relate to bandwidth: moving around hefty quantities of data could be simply too much for today's IT infrastructure. Wittkopp pointed out that, as things stand, we still need to carefully consider.

Paul Strong agreed that "data has mass", and that this presents a serious challenge for the cloud. He added that international privacy laws create extra headaches, forcing managers to consider the legal ramifications of storing cloud-based data in various datacentres around the world.

And the final issue is interoperability, as most of the panellists pointed out. Standards are still sorely needed to make smooth cloud computing a reality. Intel's Christian Morales said: "It's very important that co-operation takes place to ensure a good user experience."

But the panellist were all agreed that cloud computing has plenty to offer.

When we're happy with the software we use at home, why are we forced to use other products when we go to the office, asked Google's Marotte. He added that Google was "born on the cloud".

"Those who adopt the cloud never go back," he insisted.

VMWare's Strong said that a typical traditional model in a large enterprise would see around 85 per cent of IT expenditure lavished on software, but that managing it in the cloud could reverse this, with 70 to 80 per cent spent on data centres and the like, and far less spent on software.

There are genuine economies of scale to be had through the cloud, Strong argued, and it's far more cost-effective.

Kiehne had more futuristic ideas in mind. Imagine a world in which all the cars can talk to one another, he said, warning of traffic hazards and weather conditions up ahead.

Google's Marotte claimed that, thanks to the collaborative possibilities of cloud technology, creating a press release when he joined Google had taken only minutes, when it would previously have taken a week.

For all the potential hurdles that lie ahead for cloud computing, one thing's for sure: there's plenty of interest in the concept, and no shortage of cheerleaders to take it ahead.

Even the most cautious of the panellists at the summit today (representing, as we mentioned previously, a sort of Who's Who of IT's corporate giants) felt that cloud computing would be with us at some point. It's just that, having listened to the experts in the field thrash out the current state of the concept, it doesn't sound to me like we're there quite yet.