Can the cloud brand live up to its original promises?

Cloud computing has long battled with the IT market to prove its ROI. As PaaS climbs into the ring, can the cloud brand keep its original promises?

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Enterprise IT mentality demonstrates that a new technology is given only a brief period in which to prove a return on investment. Failure to do so incurs damage to its brand in various degrees. Typically, return on investment (ROI) is shown to be much more modest than originally hoped, and the brand simply fades. In some cases -- such as computer-aided software engineering in the 1980s -- the failure is so extreme that it is almost considered career-limiting to even mention the brand. So, how is the cloud brand doing?

The cloud brand has been a little different; the battle to prove its ROI more resembles a three-round boxing match than a single-leg race, with the cloud technology facing off against the market itself. The bell rang on the first round of cloud and it moved to the second in 2008, when Gartner included the then-nascent technology in the "Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies." There was activity in the market prior to that, but in 2008, the spotlight was lit.

For Platform as a Service to succeed in the enterprise, there will need to be a break from traditional approaches.

Cloud round one: Software as a Service is where we were

Leading up to 2008, Salesforce.com was successfully waging a guerrilla war outside of IT, and other major vendors, such as Microsoft, were walking into the fray. Amazon Web Services (AWS) was taking the startup world by storm, but it was largely being ignored in the enterprise. Early conversations about the concept of cloud computing in the enterprise focused on Software as a Service (SaaS), with a nod toward Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), if the company was going to deploy workloads in to the cloud. This was also the time of the "everyone has his definition of cloud" conversation -- a powerful marketing and political tool that permitted the mapping of a traditional virtualized data center onto the concept of IaaS.

Round one closed with SaaS well established in the marketplace and in the court of public opinion.

Cloud round two: Infrastructure as a Service is where we are

Round two brought the IaaS discussion to the forefront -- particularly in the enterprise. IaaS as a hosted virtual machine (VM) service fit nicely in to the enterprise IT worldview, as a direct mapping of existing skills was possible and appealing. But one troublesome fact was not actually part of this conversation: IaaS is just being used as automated hosting of VMs; it's not really "cloud computing."

Round two is currently closing with AWS the public IaaS leader by such a margin that the remaining battleground seems to be second place. Meanwhile, the private IaaS story is headed for a day of reckoning with ROI gods. This lays the groundwork for round three: Platform as a Service (PaaS).

Cloud round three: Is Platform as a Service where we are going?

What do we have left of the original enterprise cloud value proposition as the bell signals the start of Round 3? Clearly SaaS has established itself as the off-the-shelf software acquisition model to beat. The challenge of securely integrating the user-demanded public cloud services such as DropBox still remain, but that is a solvable problem.

The rebranding of virtualized data centers as private IaaS will not yield a meaningful improvement in IT cost efficiency. If historical patterns hold true, the blame for this will fall on cloud computing. There is a standard question from the business side of the executive suite toward the technology side: "You said if we do X, then Y will improve. We did X and Y is still the same. Why is that?" There is no good answer. But the reaction is the same. X is now bad and no longer a topic of conversation.

This leads up to PaaS. For Platform as a Service to succeed in the enterprise, there will need to be a break from traditional approaches.

PaaS requires that architects and developers surrender the thinking that certain business goals must be achieved through infrastructure optimization. IT will provide a standard set of building block services in PaaS from which applications will be built. The application side will drive scale, reliability and security.

As PaaS is preparing to climb in to the ring for round three, it faces the usual practice of redefinition. The term application PaaS, or aPaaS, is being bandied about -- despite being redundant. Application PaaS pulls many of the XaaS monikers, such as Database as a Service and Storage as a Service, into the PaaS camp. However, the reality is these are already just services within PaaS; no special "aPaaS" differentiation is necessary.

The current redefinition of the PaaS discussion is disturbing because it will obscure the need for these fundamental changes that are needed to deliver the economic value still largely untapped inside the cloud computing model.

The cloud brand likely will not be totally discredited. But the cloud brand is challenged in that it is not likely to live up to the grand promises that are being made for it. The SaaS part of cloud computing is maturing and taking its place in the pantheon of innovations such as PCs, the Internet and smartphones. We'll have to stay in our ring-side seats a little longer to see whether IaaS and PaaS ROI can trump the end of the hype cycle.

About the author:
Mark Eisenberg has been doing mobile app development since 2005. He joined the nascent Windows Azure sales team at Microsoft despite being an early cloud skeptic. Now, after embracing the cloud and its technological potential, he combines his cloud and mobile expertise with his technological background to help clients realize real value from their technology investments. Mark is also a seasoned business development professional, with more than 20 years of experience. He started his career in software development and has since maintained his technology edge, most recently adding cross-platform mobile development skills. His sales career began when he joined Intel's channel and has included positions at other communications-focused firms prior to Microsoft.

This was first published in February 2014

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