With all things “cloud” all the rage these days, I think there are two major schools of thought and their associated narratives building around the cloud. At odds with each other, yet building simultaneously, these two narratives may give us pause when we consider what the cloud should mean for us and how we should approach it.

Heads in the Cloud?

The first view, associated most often with vendors, sees the cloud as the answer to our IT, processing, communication and content challenges: capable, flexible, secure and cost justified. One analyst even refers to the “weightless cloud,” while another suggests that end-user cloud costs will drop as cloud vendors cover most of their costs through advertising.

Seen most often in general publications likely to be read by managers and decision makers, this view if adopted uncritically, might lead us to wonder why we aren’t further into our cloud implementations.

We won’t dwell extensively here on the benefits of the cloud: they are told everywhere. Our task instead will be to understand how we should evaluate the claims made on behalf of the cloud as we decide what path our organizations should follow.

Pay No Attention to Those Facts Behind the Curtain

The second school of thought, more often encountered in professional geek publications, views the cloud, with considerable skepticism, as returning to a world of using remote service providers to upload our data, run applications and make the results available via the Internet.

Unlike earlier eras, today’s users are encouraged to store their content -- all of it -- in the remote vendor’s facilities. According to this view, we’ve been here before and even without today’s technology and bandwidth those earlier times may offer some lessons and cautions for a move “back to the future” of remote, cloud services.

For example, I recently read a scholarly analysis of cloud vs. local computing costs, concluding that cloud computing has a ways to go before it is sufficiently more financially attractive than local computing to justify wholesale conversion.

Another study suggests that the vision of cloud services paying for themselves through advertising may be wide of the mark, even eerily reminiscent of the 1990s when Internet companies and their investors believed they could offer services virtually free, gaining their revenues from paid advertising on their sites. For all but a few firms that didn’t work well: users rapidly became immune, the impact of the ads dropped, advertisers bolted and the Internet companies found themselves with high costs, users demanding the “free” stuff and revenues insufficient to bridge the gap.

While we haven’t yet seen a trend in that direction for existing search engine advertising -- Google derives 97 percent of its revenues from ads -- broadening the cost mix to cover cloud processing could risk oversaturating the ad market.

Judging from the first, more optimistic school of thought, we need only turn to the cloud and our computing and IT challenges will largely disappear, taking most of their costs with them. Cloud vendors and their acolytes are selling this vision of a cloud-based world, and no doubt some are serious about making the cloud everything it is claimed to be.

The second narrative, however, fears that the reality of the cloud today and for some time is that problems, challenges and shortfalls of local computing will likely follow us into the cloud, working their mischief just as nastily, if in somewhat different ways.

So, if we are to avoid sitting on our hands while the world moves past us, what are we to do?

Aiming for the Cloud ... With our Guard Up

One of the most vexing aspects of today’s cloud frenzy is the implicit assumption that because the cloud appears different from previous technology eras, techniques used to control adoption of those earlier technologies are of little use as we confront a new cloud-based world. But if we take a functional view of what adopting the cloud actually entails, we may find that some truths don’t materially change over time, they must merely be adjusted for the new details.

For example, adopting new technology should not be centered on the technology itself or on its vendors, but on the functions and environment a potential adopter needs to support.

Only by starting with a clear and unambiguous understanding of what you must do and the environment in which you must do it, can you decide whether or how well any new candidate technology will work for you. While never universally applied, the wisdom of that precept has been manifest for decades and is as potentially valuable in dealing with the cloud as with earlier technologies.

So what is the best first step in confronting the cloud? Figure out what you are really trying to accomplish and make sure that knowledge is at the forefront of every cloud-related conversation and decision.

Security is in the Eye of the Invader

It’s a truism that the more attractive the prize, the more aggressive the effort to take it, hence the more stringent the required security measures. As the amount of valuable information in externally connected computers grows (by petabytes according to some observers) the sophistication and resources of those who would compromise it will grow apace.

There are today entire industries focused on development of malware capable of penetrating the financial, informational and personal content of society. In some cases, the would-be penetrators are as smart, well funded and motivated as those who would stop them.

If the cloud grows exponentially as its supporters envision, the value contained within it will explode, attracting all manner of well-heeled penetrators. Some will use sophisticated malware while others will take a more low-tech path: placing moles in cloud firms or stealing key information through break-in, blackmail or threats. It’s not clear that all cloud vendors are fully prepared for this onslaught or that they are as innovative and nimble as their underworld opponents. The results for some users may make this painfully clear.

The appropriate response to this growing jeopardy may, for some time, be to keep your most critical information tightly under your control, releasing it to a cloud environment only as it becomes clear that the cloud world understands just how much responsibility they are taking with your data.

Moreover, the level of scrutiny to which candidate cloud vendors should be subjected is probably higher and more searching than we are used to. Only vendors with both the wherewithal and commitment to security should be in the mix.

In the end, our biggest challenge with the cloud may not be that it doesn’t work, but instead that it appears to work so well that we ignore its pot-holes, some of which can do us great harm and will take considerable time to fix.

Image courtesy of Kirill Smirnov (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in other articles by Barry Schaeffer:

-- Mobile Technology and That Nasty Law of Diminishing Returns