Cloud fever: What will it take for a breakout?

At a roundtable discussion on Microsoft's campus, of all places, some of the tech industry's best and brightest gather to offer a snapshot of cloud computing's progress--and lack thereof.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--George Zachary, a partner with Charles River Ventures, offered an apercu that may wind up getting quoted quite a lot over the coming year. Cloud computing, he said, "is the new dot-com."

I have the feeling that he's right. I spent Friday afternoon listening to executives representing several of the top companies in their respective spheres, singing hosannas to the power of the cloud. This was a serious gathering of technologists, and their enthusiasm for cloud computing's potential hearkened back to an earlier time.

The future's not cloudy: It's all about "the cloud" Charles Cooper/CNET

In fact, after the tech industry began rebuilding following the dot-com bust in the early part of the decade, many of these folks were similarly waxing enthusiastic about a new generation of Web-based consumer applications. So it was that they approached the growth of Web-based infrastructure to host storage and applications as a promising harbinger.

"It's the biggest shift we've had in computing in two decades," said Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff.

Benioff, who made his comments at a roundtable discussion on cloud computing organized by TechCrunch, also offered up an anecdote to underscore the speed with which peoples' computing habits are changing.

After closing the company's fiscal quarter, Benioff was scheduled to fly off to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum. He was supposed to schlep along his laptop for the trip, but ultimately opted to leave his personal computer at home. Instead, he relied on his BlackBerry smart phone, which accessed all of Benioff's applications over the conferences Wi-Fi service.

"Everything ran in the cloud," he said.

Vic Gundrota, the vice president of engineering at Google, said the shift had essentially retired the importance of platform lockup, a debate which he said mattered more than a decade ago. Nowadays, he said, regardless of the platform, "through magic of the Web, we've built a platform that's available through the browser."

But there's still a lot to be settled, not the least being the challenge of how to bring to enterprise computing more of the user-friendly software interfaces that people have become accustomed to in the personal computing realm.

"We need to have protocols that are open and accessible for anyone to use," said Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer at Amazon. He added that "in many ways, we are still at Day 1."

Paul Buchheit, the founder of Friendfreed, echoed that sentiment. ""We talk a lot about back-end infrastructure, but if you look at this from a user perspective, it's about how all this will interoperate," he noted. "There has to be a user experience that makes it simple."

How long this shift is likely to take to complete was a subject that got batted around without conclusion. Interestingly, Lew Tucker, the CTO at Sun Microsystems, suggested that "start-ups are already there" but that enterprises were relatively lagging behind.

Some, like Benioff, noted the irony of holding a roundtable discussion about cloud computing on Microsoft's premises. That was not lost on the participants. Before the meeting, one of them said privately, "They realize that the world's changed. They're smart but they also know they need to evolve with the times."

 

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