2011 was a very exciting year for anyone interested in cloud computing. From many perspectives, it can be considered the year the cloud went mainstream. While interest in this topic has been strong for at least a couple of years now, mostly from technologists and entrepreneurs, 2011 was the year when the cloud jumped into the mind of the general public. Even though people still have doubts and concerns – and even though there are still some uncertainties surrounding the term – it can no longer be said that people don’t know what the cloud is.

A very simple measure of how widespread cloud computing has become is the recent article on Harvard Business Review talking about what every CEO needs to know about the cloud. This means that the cloud is no longer a niche or a curiosity, it is now in the conscious of the public. Talking about the cloud won’t get you dumb looks anymore; a lot of people know what cloud computing is, even if they don’t understand it properly. It’s like the internet: even if people don’t know how it works, everyone knows what it is.

In this past year, the cloud has matured from a platform for web-based companies and startups, to a critical concern for large enterprises everywhere. Evolution and success bring more success, creating an exponential growth curve that we are seeing just the beginnings of. At the same time, growing up brings challenges and difficulties that must be addressed with care. During this past year, we had opportunity to see both the good and the bad side of the cloud in several high profile situations.

April Fool’s

April 2011 was a hard month for cloud enthusiasts. We had Epsilon’s security breach, where e-mail addresses from customers of several large and high-profile companies were compromised. We had the concerns around the security policies and practices of cloud storage company Dropbox. Then along came Amazon’s EC2 outage, which brought down popular services such as Foursquare and Reddit. As if that wasn’t enough, we had Sony’s Playstation Network Outage. All considered, an excellent month for cloud skeptics and critics everywhere.

All these incidents resulted in some healthy debate about the current state and future of cloud computing. While at first glance they seemed to reinforce the points of cloud critics, problems are inevitable during any kind of technological shift, and the move to cloud computing is no different. The number of incidents and the attention they garnered are representative of the importance that the cloud has assumed in the public. While there were some blunders in the responses, most companies focused on transparency and building trust with their customers in spite of the problems.

The events of April highlighted two aspects of growth for all cloud vendors. First, as more and more people rely on the cloud, the complexity involved in maintaining and supporting these systems increases exponentially. This increase in complexity can quickly lead to problems as unexpected situations and interactions between services appear. Second, as the services that people and companies use every day are moved to the cloud, any kind of incident, be it a service outage or a security breach, can affect thousands of people and have massive negative impact for all involved. As the cloud becomes more important, it becomes more newsworthy, and any problems will be quickly reported everywhere.

Another trend that is perhaps a mark of cloud computing going mainstream is cloudwashing. Cloudwashing is when companies add the “cloud” moniker to their offerings regardless of actually having anything “cloud” to offer their customers. It’s basically trying to use the publicity surrounding cloud computing to sell unrelated products. While it shows that the cloud has grown enough in popularity to be used as an advertising strategy, it can also be a bad thing, misleading customers and users.

Looking on the bright side

Not all was bad news, however. There was a lot of movement in the cloud space, both in terms of new services and offerings and in terms of acquisitions. As the market matured, the needs of users have become more apparent, and the major providers have either complemented their services or bought companies with complementary offerings. Rackspace purchased cloud monitoring company Cloudkick (this happened in late 2010, but the integration of offerings and the ramifications of the deal happened this past year), and Amazon launched and improved its monitoring offerings.

Other large players are also moving in this market. Microsoft has improved its cloud offering throughout the year, releasing new features and pricing models. Salesforce.com has ridden the cloud wave with great success, always touting the fact that it’s the largest publicly listed “pure cloud” company out there. And other large companies are jumping in the fray. HP, IBM, Oracle, and even SAP are entering the cloud space with some sort of offering.

Another interesting development has been the repeated cost reductions applied to some cloud services. As platforms matured and competition increased, we saw several providers offering cost reductions of some sort, under the guise of free services, increased limits on free tiers, or eliminating costs associated with internal bandwidth usage.

Finally, the diffusion of knowledge about cloud computing has, in part, offset the growth in cloudwashing. As people gain a better understanding of the cloud, of its possible benefits and of the associated risks, it becomes harder for vendors to both disguise their offerings as cloud-based, and also to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the cloud. Spreading knowledge is always a good thing.

Looking back – and forward

At the beginning of the year, there were a lot of predictions on how 2011 would be the year of the cloud, and that it would be a tipping point for cloud adoption everywhere. These predictions have been largely confirmed. While the spending with cloud solutions as a percentage of the total IT expenditure is still relatively small, the numbers are showing healthy growth, and projections are optimistic. Almost all major IT vendors are moving in this space, and the future is bright.

The most important measure of the shift towards the cloud, however, is that everyone one now knows what the cloud is. A couple of years ago, whenever I told a client I worked with cloud solutions, I’d see a blank look on their face. Today, everywhere I go people not only know what the cloud is, but also what benefits they can expect from a cloud solution in comparison with in-house software. To paraphrase a despised pun, there are only clear skies in the future of cloud computing.