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cloudOne of the most compelling ideas connected with the rise of cloud computing is that, thanks to the cloud, corporate technology leaders who shift their computing tasks into that amorphous zone won’t have to think anymore about how the work is done—about the messy complexities of hardware, software, networking and security. Their computing will just happen, off somewhere, out of sight.

This is a mighty attractive idea, but, in many cases, it’s far from the truth.

Cloud computing is no more a commodity than are traditional forms of computing, and, to get the most out of the cloud and to limit risks, corporate technology leaders will be required to pay more attention—not less–to the variables surrounding their data processing and communications tasks. Sure, other organizations might be providing the services, but it will be up to the corporate IT leader to set strategy and select the cloud environment that best fits each of the computing applications upon which her or his company runs.

At IBM, we have begun to talk about what we call the “client-defined cloud.” The concept is at the heart of a second generation of cloud services that IBM announced on April 7.

The new services include IBM Smart Business Cloud, the computer industry’s first enterprise-class cloud service offering the cost savings and scalability of a shared cloud combined with the security, reliability and support associated with a private, on-premises cloud. IBM also announced the formation of the Cloud Standards Customer Council , a group initially made up of IBM and more than 35 of the world’s leading enterprises, whose aim is to shape a client-centric view of the future of cloud computing. The council, which is an outgrowth of the Object Management Group standards body, is open to others who want to participate. For more detail on the announcements, see the press release and the council Web site,

Up until now, in the five-year span of the cloud craze, most corporate leaders have relied on their technology suppliers or the media to define the cloud and tell them how this new style of computing will work. But now that the hype is settling down, technology has advanced and there are abundant real-life experiences to learn from, it’s time for the consumers of technology to speak out and shape this still-nascent mix of technology and techniques into forms that suit their needs. “I see the client-defined cloud as being how IT leaders plan, acquire and manage cloud services,” says Lauren States, IBM’s chief technology officer for cloud computing.

In traditional corporate computing, chief information officers and IT directors specify the computer servers, the operating systems, the application software, the storage set up, and the security schemes that fit their needs. These choices matter. They are the decisions that determine, in large part, whether a computing project serves a business well–whether it’s efficient and effective. And so it will be in cloud computing. One size won’t fit all. It’s becoming clear that there will be a wide variety of clouds available for the choosing, and not just the familiar taxonomy of on-premises, off-premises, public and private.

The stakes are high. Every major disruption of the ways things are done carries with it considerable risks. That doesn’t mean don’t do it; it means leaders must study and think deeply before they act.

Within cloud computing, there are two tiers of decision making. The first is strategic. Leaders must decide how to secure their data, how to assure that their computing systems are available when they need them, and how to avoid becoming locked in by a cloud service supplier. Lock-in is a crucial point. Corporate leaders of the past were disadvantaged by the proprietary technology schemes of IBM during the mainframe era and of Microsoft during the PC era. Today, some of’s technology decisions regarding its cloud services, while not seemingly aimed at lock-in, might have that effect. In the cloud era, corporate technology leaders should insist that the services they buy are based on open standards and that their applications can be moved from one supplier’s data centers to another’s with the minimum difficulty.

The second tier of decision making is more tactical—but still important. Think of all of those variables that feed into the way a company organizes and operates its computing resources, and secures services from others. Choices of technology platforms, including hardware, virtualization, and storage, can have profound consequences. Other choices affect the ability to bring new applications online quickly. And then there are decisions about payment models. Some leaders may want to be billed for their cloud services the way they pay for electrical utilities; others may want to pay based on outcomes.

Complexity has long been the worry that keeps CIOs awake at night. Cloud computing promises to make their lives less complex and less stressful. That promise must be kept by the computer industry. IBM, for one, is contributing to open standards and techniques that assure interoperability of cloud systems and portability of applications from one cloud platform to another. But it’s up to IT leaders to assert themselves and insist on retaining the responsibility—and the power—that come with determining how technology will be used by their companies.

This is what it means for the client to define the cloud.

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