As the end-user computing revolution enters midlife, it is inhaling a breath of fresh air from a relatively new technology called cloud computing. End-users' desire for more information faster will become reality as the cloud combines with always online clients such as netbooks, Google's Chrome Operating System, and Internet-heavy smartphones. This will also, however, likely trigger a climatic final battle between the end users and the IT groups charged with keeping end-users' environments stable and secure.
The cloud revolution is a double-edged sword – it brings total empowerment for the end user, but it robs IT of many of its traditional duties and powers. Over the years, each phase of the end-user revolution has created terrific efficiency gains and cost reductions for businesses in rapid fashion.
We've seen things move from the mainframe to the PC, to client/server architectures, to the Web, and now to the cloud. With the cloud phase, we are seeing the 50-year battle between the end user and the IT nearing an end. IT will evolve either by becoming a strategic partner with its customers or be relegated to fielding the occasional helpdesk call and chasing security risks and other incidents.
We are in the early phase of a mega change. As the cloud reveals itself, it will present a whole new set of risks, challenges, and opportunities. Those it will affect the most are IT employees, security experts, and software product vendors.
In simple terms, the biggest change with the cloud revolution involves (1) moving the data center offsite to a third party and (2) buying services rather than maintaining on-site applications. At the same time, it means IT no longer manages servers and applications directly. As desktops become as disposable as mobile phones and as the use of virtualization increases, IT will be needed less and less. This will create the biggest change IT has ever seen.
Cloud computing is a reality; it's being used more often every day. Much as the PC revolution enabled end users to run the software of their choice, cloud computing allows end users to run the client/server, Web-based software of their choice. Such a change must not be ignored and instead should be capitalized on now.
HISTORY OF CLOUD COMPUTING
A great way to learn the future of the cloud is to study its recent history and by reviewing the early days of the PC revolution. In the 1980s, the PC revolution brought computing power to the end user and away from the mainframe world managed by IT.
Before the PC revolution, however, computer users had to work with IT to create mainframe applications; the user had no control and IT had all the power. This enabled IT to make and enforce all the rules, leaving the end user frustrated but safe and fairly productive. The end user, however, could not move as fast as they wanted or in the ways they wanted.
IT by its nature was a roadblock, caused by the drive for good security and computer management. It didn't help most applications that were created by design teams and business analysts. The IT roadblock was understandable, but it slowed things down for the end user.
As the PC revolution and its easily acquired off-the-shelf applications took off, end users simply selected the solutions of their choice, be it Lotus 123 spreadsheets, Word Perfect word processors, or others. This empowered the users, but it also exposed them to certain risks. Their data was stored locally in an unsecure manner and was seldom backed up. IT provided some support but was starting to lose control. End users were able to change their machine configurations, pick their own products, and write their own custom macros to extend their solutions to meet their specific needs. This initially eliminated much of their dependency on IT, moving IT into a support role.
As time passed, however, IT regained much of the control back from the end user. The introduction of solutions like group policy objects (GPOs) (to manage machine states), security management, and client/server products moved control back to IT. Things were back to normal.
Then, in the mid 90s, along comes the Internet and the end-user revolution is reborn. Users are again in full control; they select the sites they want to visit and they set their preferences without regard to IT. Preferences are instead managed by sites like Yahoo! IT is still fighting this battle today as Web usage continues to be a major security concern.
The cloud computing concept was born in the late 90s with the development of Web applications like Salesforce.com. A faster, cheaper, and more reliable Internet, as well as a general acceptance by most companies to trust their data with cloud vendors, drove the development of the cloud.
The dot com crash slowed the cloud, but it also removed the vendors that were not qualified, enabling only the strongest players to survive. Today, Google Apps and other similar products are again offering end users the choice of what to use and where their data should reside, just like the early days of the PC revolution. IT is once again on the outside looking in.
Web-based applications are a key part of the cloud, but they are not the entire picture. The cloud also includes the use of low-cost raw servers that are available on demand. These servers may be unpatched, unsecured, and unmonitored by IT. IT may not even be aware that the servers are in use as they are typically offsite and configured by the end user. This extends the revolution as end users can now build a server, set up a Web site and go, without any input or control from IT. There isn't even a need for a budget. All that is required is an Amazon account and a valid credit card. This certainly speeds up Web site creation, but it is obviously coming with serious risks.