A hat-trick of technology stories has caught my attention in recent weeks. The first one was Google launching its App Engine, essentially a competitor to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) web-based environment and Microsoft's tranche of Live services. It's an environment where you're again using external systems for processing and storage. Interesting, but CIOs will quite rightly ask what the benefit is for them.
Frankly, I'm struggling to see the attractions of these so-called cloud-based services for bigger businesses. At the minimum, a CIO needs to know he's in control of the business and, given that most hosting companies today struggle to offer service levels as it is, who is to say that these new entrants will do any better at providing services.
OK, so they have huge internal service capacity, but it's often the case that the services you give to outsiders are not as good as what you can manage internally. The internal plumbing might be strong, but what about when you're providing a service on a multi-tenant basis and have to ensure not just performance and continuity but also data privacy?
Salesforce.com has developed multi-tenancy very successfully, I'll -give you that, but all you're doing there is loading your own data onto Salesforce's application. It's a cracking application, but very different from everybody running their own applications. And on Salesforce, there are very few people doing heavy customisation.
You can be suckered into thinking you can get rid of all this datacentre stuff but, if you're a CIO, your job is to provide infrastructure for your organisation and manage that process, whether you're outsourcing the day-to-day operations or not. I have yet to hear lots of proven outsourcing success stories in this area, and taking a vanilla version of a package such as Microsoft Exchange is a very different thing to what suppliers of cloud-based services are proposing.
A CIO has to focus very carefully on business users and offer them a platform to innovate, to get projects from concept to cash. I'm not at all sure the cloud is the platform for that - not for now at least.
A second interesting technology, and one I'm keener on, is Microsoft Silverlight 2.0, which I saw demonstrated recently. I'm a big believer in the rich internet and the idea that the browser has become a big constraint. The browser hasn't even kept up with the connectivity that businesses and consumers have coming into their offices and homes. Now is the time to show how front-end technologies will have an impact on business applications of tomorrow, whether they're internet-based or not. It's about ergonomics, usability and presentation - developing amazing runtimes on laptops and desktops, of course, but also with very small footprints for phones. The issue has always been the ability to write the presentation layer in a way that maintains proper graphics.
To see excellent Silverlight capabilities such as the Deep Zoom feature, the site to go to is http://memorabilia.hardrock.com. There, you'll see hundreds of images in a catalogue, with gigabytes and gigabytes and gigabytes of storage loading smoothly as you're searching around based on terms you type in. You can go right in and see a string on one of Eric Clapton's guitars, for example, and the speed is amazing. CIOs might ask what Silverlight will do for them today, but it's more of a pointer to the way people will navigate in the future.
Incidentally, a lot of people will be watching to see whether Silverlight crushes Adobe's AIR and Flex tools. I think this is one area where Microsoft and Adobe will co-exist because Adobe's Flash and associated tools are such an embedded part of the internet.
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