Consumers who have been using online services for more than a decade may have become confused when popular software providers such as Microsoft started declaring "to the cloud" in reference to just about every imaginable online service. The typical consumer computer user didn't realize they were using what is now called cloud services.
An August report from The NPD Group found that while only 22 percent of U.S. consumers claimed familiarity with the term "cloud computing," more than three-quarters were using services that could be characterized as cloud-computing services.
Primary among these consumer cloud activities were email, tax preparation, online gaming and photo and video sharing.
"Whether they understand the terminology or not, consumers are actually pretty savvy in their use of cloud-based applications," said NPD analyst Stephen Baker. "They might not always recognize they are performing activities in the cloud, yet they still rely on and use those services extensively."
A similar observation can be made regarding enterprise use and of popular remote or online services that are now included in the growing list of cloud-delivered services.
"Cloud backup seems to be the wedge to get into the customer with regards to the cloud," said Greg Onoprijenko, president of Toronto-based e-ternity Business Continuity Consultants.
"What we used to call remote backup or online backup or Internet backup is now cloud backup, and that's what we see as the most mainstream of the cloud offerings," Onoprijenko said. "Most customers are familiar with the concept, so there's far less education involved. Most everybody can think of a colleague who is using a cloud backup service. In the mainstream world, with Apple iCloud, everyone is familiar with iPods and iPads, so backing up to the cloud makes sense to them."
However, there are still issues with cloud computing that keep IT professionals, as well as the average consumer, skeptical. The biggest issue is security and what happens to applications and data in the cloud. Onoprijenko believes that the technology can overcome those issues eventually.
"I was using the analogy the other day that 10 years ago people were nervous about entering their credit cards online when e-commerce was just getting off the ground," Onoprijenko said. "Everyone had to think twice about punching in that credit card into that Website. Who was the vendor, what's the risk? Today, everybody is entering credit card numbers online freely without even thinking about it. The same applies to online backup. Finally people are comfortable enough to let their data sit out there. That's the first step for customers to get comfortable with the cloud."
Scott Crosby, the general manager of EnCompass Iowa, a cloud service provider, sees IT departments and their companies investing in what he calls "utilities." These types of cloud utilities are just the first steps toward a more robust cloud infrastructure.
"A lot of what I consider to be utilities are where most clients seem to start," Crosby said. "The utility aspects of it are things like anti-virus and anti-spam for your email, or your data backup. Remote management and monitoring. Those are your IT efficiency utilities."
David DeCamillis, head of Business Development for Platte River Networks of Denver, agrees.
"The area where we're seeing the most interest immediately is offsite backup," said DeCamillis. That's become much more affordable. The only problem with offsite backup is, because companies are creating more and more data, it quickly becomes cost-prohibitive if you're taking all your data offsite. We're taking more companies and recommending just critical data. The other thing is, should there be a disaster, you can't immediately restore from a local tape. It can take a day or even days to retrieve all of their data back on media from the provider."
Once companies have become comfortable and confident using the cloud to provide needed utility services, their next step is often into cloud-based productivity, collaboration and communication services such as Microsoft Office 365, IBM's LotusLive or Google Apps.
"We see that the quickest path to the cloud is through systems that are more critical in nature but not necessarily strategic, where you can maintain the same or better levels of performance while reducing cost," said Pete Zarras, CEO of CloudStrategies. "Email and collaboration platforms are really easy. Workloads where people are consolidating core infrastructure and desiring to gain efficiencies from infrastructure as a service [IaaS] seem to be coming next for core software applications."
"From the productivity perspective, what they are looking at moving there is email, calendar, contact, tasks, basically Outlook/Exchange," Crosby said. "Along with that are Office documents and SharePoint. We call this -virtual office.' Another, from the productivity perspective, is the phone system, what we call -virtual voice' in which you don't have a phone switch or PBX in your building. It's in the cloud."
Lao Tzu is credited with first saying that the longest journey begins with a single step.
Clearly, users are identifying the beginning steps on the journey to cloud computing. Over time, they will arrive at a place where they can use, share and benefit from information with incredible agility, security and speed.