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What cloud computing really means

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What cloud computing really means

The next big trend sounds nebulous, but it's not so fuzzy when you view the value proposition from the perspective of IT professionals.

Cloud computing is all the rage. "It's become the phrase du jour," says Gartner senior analyst Ben Pring, echoing many of his peers. The problem is that (as with Web 2.0) everyone seems to have a different definition.

As a metaphor for the Internet, "the cloud" is a familiar cliché, but when combined with "computing," the meaning gets bigger and fuzzier. Some analysts and vendors define cloud computing narrowly as an updated version of utility computing: basically virtual servers available over the Internet. Others go very broad, arguing anything you consume outside the firewall is "in the cloud," including conventional outsourcing.

Cloud computing comes into focus only when you think about what IT always needs: a way to increase capacity or add capabilities on the fly without investing in new infrastructure, training new personnel, or licensing new software. Cloud computing encompasses any subscription-based or pay-per-use service that, in real time over the Internet, extends IT's existing capabilities.

Cloud computing is at an early stage, with a motley crew of providers large and small delivering a slew of cloud-based services, from full-blown applications to storage services to spam filtering. Yes, utility-style infrastructure providers are part of the mix, but so are SaaS (software as a service) providers such as Salesforce.com. Today, for the most part, IT must plug into cloud-based services individually, but cloud computing aggregators and integrators are already emerging.

InfoWorld talked to dozens of vendors, analysts, and IT customers to tease out the various components of cloud computing. Based on those discussions, here's a rough breakdown of what cloud computing is all about:

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