IBM's Dr James H Comfort, General Manager in charge of Cloud Services, came to the company 26 years ago after doing his doctoral work at MIT. "Every job I've had at IBM had two characteristics," he says. "One has been that most people said that what I was doing was not possible; and the other has been that to achieve the goal communication was required between two different parts of the organisation. Building the communication and understanding both sides to get the collaboration is what I've done on an organisational basis most of my career."

As the man shouldering the responsibility for IBM's cloud computing services - using internet-based computing resources rather than managing in-house hardware and software - his current role has been no different.

"In 2008 and 2009, [then CEO] Sam Palmisano recognised that there was a massive opportunity for IBM, but not one that would present itself to us in a way that fits our mould," says Comfort. "We had to change hardware, change software and change services. We created a group of eight or 10 of us, each with 20 years'-plus experience in different parts of IBM, plus some external influence, to think through what cloud was, what it wasn't, what the value for our clients was, what the value for IBM was, and what we should do about it.

"[Cloud computing] is real. It is not a fad. It is acutely important for businesses and IBM to see this as a tremendous opportunity - users only needs to focus on what they want to accomplish; they don't have to worry about ordering a server, and they don't have to worry about procurement."

Despite the advantages of cloud computing, Comfort warns that the transition must be thought through intelligently. "Many clients are confused, they think of moving their business to the cloud as a singular statement. It is frankly irrational to say you will move everything you do today instantly. You need to help clients separate out which things make sense to do in an incremental way and which things make sense to do in a more aggressive way, and to understand which of those is most important to that business. Some think that through very well, while others are getting into cloud because their CEO and the press says it is important, though I hate to say that."

Is the cloud safe? "There are security and compliance concerns," Comfort concedes, "but there is a lot of myth in this space. I always encourage clients to talk about their security policy. Don't explain to me how you have been doing that for the last 20 years - let us look at what it is that needs to be protected. Then we can figure out how to handle that.

"Three or four years ago security was a reason not to move. Today it is an engineering problem to be solved."

The flip side is the risk in ignoring the cloud. "By far the most massive risk to a business is not adapting, because their business model will be attacked by somebody who can figure out how to use it," says Comfort. "Look at WhatsApp [a cloud-based messaging service]. WhatsApp has disintermediated the text messaging business of telecommunication companies worldwide. They are wiping it out as a moneymaking activity for that entire industry. If companies don't think that a smart competitor is going to come up with alternatives and disrupt their business, then they are going to get run over. That is by far the biggest risk."

How will the computing landscape change in say five years' time? "I think cloud will be the de facto function. I think there will be significant consolidation. It is a game of scale so there will not be hundreds of providers, there will be a relatively small number of very effective providers."

Tim Anderson writes on technology for, among others, the Guardian On Line

Cloud computing in brief

What is cloud computing?
The term cloud computing is multifaceted, but key concepts are computing as a service rather than as a fixed resource, and using data and applications on the internet so they can be accessed from anywhere.

What is a private cloud?
Large companies can provide computing to their employees using cloud-like services, but operated in their own datacentres. This is sometimes called a private cloud.

What is a hybrid cloud?
Some companies use a public cloud, such as those operated by Amazon, Microsoft or IBM, to supplement their own private cloud resources, adding capacity or performing backup and resilience. This kind of setup is called a hybrid cloud.

What size of business can benefit from cloud?
The very smallest businesses, right down to one-person operations, can use the cloud for all or most of their computing, avoiding the need to own computer servers for things like email and document storage and sharing. Large businesses can benefit by using cloud to add scale and flexibility to existing systems, or to outsource some of their IT requirements. In summary, businesses of any size can take advantage of cloud computing.

Any reasons not to use cloud computing?
The cloud has downsides. One problem, as with any form of outsourcing, is loss of direct control. If something goes wrong, you have to trust your cloud provider to fix it. Other issues are compliance with regulations stipulating, for example, where personal data can be stored; and the security concerns that go along with data stored by a third party. That said, the security offered by giant cloud providers may be better than what most organisations can provide on their own.

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson writes on technology for, among others, the Guardian On Line

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