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CIO - Cloud computing promises the ability to move applications and systems to the location and platform that makes the most sense--in terms of risk and economics--at any given time.
Retailers, for example, can buy extra transaction-processing capacity during holiday shopping season and give it up when sales ebb. Financial services companies might buy infrastructure in which to test systems to support new products, then walk away from it when development is done. One cloud vendor may offer a better deal than another, prompting CIOs to switch providers.
And as cloud computing evolves, some corporate IT systems will continue to reside in your data center, some perhaps with outsourcers and others with one or more cloud vendors. You will have to manage it all as though it were one computing environment, without controlling it all. "Your data center doesn't define your IT environment anymore," says Judith Hurwitz, president of the consultancy Hurwitz and Associates and author of Cloud Computing for Dummies. This, she says, makes integration "the most important issue in the cloud."
Yet there are no standards for integrating cloud computing systems. XML may be the simplest way to move data from one Web-based system to another, but many CIOs venturing into the cloud will have to connect Web and non-Web systems, and do so in a mix of cloud and on-premise environments. It's a challenge on par with efforts a decade ago to connect back-end legacy systems with Web-based user-facing applications.
Veterans of those days, as well as of more recent software-as-a-service (SaaS) deployments, know something of the integration challenges cloud computing will bring: experimenting with different application programming interfaces for speed and fluidity, avoiding lock-in to a cloud vendor's proprietary application programming interfaces (APIs), and a whole lot of testing. But there are some twists that CIOs should know how to identify and address, such as connecting Web applications to niche or legacy systems without built-in support for virtualized servers and choosing from among the nascent cloud-interoperability specifications vying for dominance. What's more, the vendors emerging as big players, such as Amazon and Google, lack experience serving enterprise customers, Hurwitz says.
IT leaders need to know more about the inner workings of cloud providers than some providers are willing to show, says Marty Colburn, CTO at Finra (the popular name for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), which oversees securities firms.
Integration emerged as a sticking point right away as Colburn explored whether to move e-mail into the cloud. He wants to be able to access archived e-mail quickly with his own extraction tools in case of audits for regulatory compliance. But he is frustrated that the vendors he's talked to so far won't reveal much about their architectures, claiming they don't want competitors to know how they do business. "Without that," he says, "how can you tell how to build integration? We're not into buying a black box," he says.