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Communications in the Cloud: When They Make Sense

As many of you know, I'm not the most bullish analyst on cloud computing. The problem isn't that I don't see the value of delivering applications over the Internet-that, I get: It can be cost-effective, especially for companies with small or no IT departments, or few resources to spend on capital projects; it is easy to scale up or down as needed; it breaks corporate boundaries, enabling inter-company collaboration long- or short term; it even may offer a needed way to share presence information across not just organizations, but multi-vendor systems, servers and clients.That's all good news, but aside from the presence angle, nothing about it is new. People have been able to get hosted software services for years-and those apps include email, conferencing and even mission-critical back-office applications (see Perhaps more important, we've seen the move to inter-company collaboration before, alternately referred to as "extranets" or, in the late nineties, "B2B marketplaces." The latter were meant to be communities of business partners (typically a supply chain, but often also outsourcers and even large customers) that would open their kimonos and share critical business information to trusted partners, over the Internet. Large companies like GM and Wal-Mart went so far as to require their biggest business partners to participate-until the marketplaces went the way of the sock puppet.

That's had me scratching my head about why, in 2010 and beyond, so many people expect to see companies rush the gates for cloud computing. (One IBM commentator joked at Lotusphere, Instead of adding "in bed" to the end of every fortune, technologists are adding "in the cloud" to the end of every business application.) What has to change isn't the technology (although true SaaS is in fact built differently from on-premises applications, and is better able to be delivered, used and updated over the web).

There's no doubt that we're seeing a cultural shift among workers. Ten years ago, most business executives were reluctant to share information about their businesses with anyone, even trusted partners-on an online forum, or anywhere else. Today, those same executives (or the ones who've replaced them) are used to sharing plenty of personal information on the web, via Facebook and Twitter; maybe it's not such a leap to do the same with corporate data.

Equally important, more and more employees are working remotely, from small branch offices, home offices and the "road" (which these days can be a car, airport, plane, or the sidelines of a soccer match). For those people, software as a service makes a lot of sense-assuming they can access the applications from any device and any network. That said, I'm not convinced these users need cloud-based apps so much as virtual desktops, which can leverage cloud- and premises-based applications.

Both these factors--as well as the desire to be the "greenest" electronics manufacturer in the world-played a role in Panasonic's decision to deploy hosted apps from IBM across its organization. What do you think are the motivators for communications in the cloud--and is it a real revolution? I have a feeling that will be the $64,000 question for the year to come.