With the possible exception of “Big Data,” “Cloud” is probably the most overused, overhyped term in IT today. Every single technology company out there is “moving to the cloud”, regardless of the business they’re in or of the things they sell to customers (Microsoft even has the cloud OS). Every software or service is being cloudwashed by vendors, from Oracle databases to email applications. We are seeing the hype cycle for emerging technologies moving at full speed for cloud computing as a whole.

Gartner defines the hype cycle for technologies as a series of stages that technologies go through over the course of their lifetime, ranging from the excitement and over-enthusiasm with which many new concepts are greeted all the way through maturity and actual usability. There are five different phases in the hype cycle:

  1. “Technological Trigger” – Some technical or conceptual breakthrough, that may or may not be associated with a product launch, creates a lot of publicity.
  2. “Peak of Inflated Expectations” – As publicity increases, so does general excitement with the technology, even if it has seen little or no practical application. There might be some success stories, but there will be even more failures.
  3. “Trough of Disillusionment” – As failures mount, interest in the technology begins to wane, and the hype starts to disappear. Vendors have to evolve their products or fail.
  4. “Slope of Enlightenment” – A new wave of adoption comes along as the technology matures, proper use cases become well understood and vendors improve their offerings.
  5. “Plateau of Productivity” – Finally, a technology reaches a plateau where it is used for the benefit of the market as a whole. Technological adoption becomes mainstream.

To illustrate this concept, here is Gartner’s own hype cycle for emerging technologies for 2012:

Click to enlarge.

Interestingly enough, they place “Cloud Computing” in the peak of inflated expectations as of 2011, in contrast to being in the beginning of the trough of disillusionment in the chart above. Another interesting point is that different cloud technologies are in different points of the cycle. The constant press and the enthusiasm of vendors to slap the term “cloud” to anything and everything they sell are keeping the hype going. In a sense, even the huge success of social networking companies such as Pinterest, which relies heavily on Amazon’s cloud offerings, stimulate this hype wave.

Where are we headed?

Given that we have all this hype surrounding the cloud, the natural movement would seem to be that we will soon move into the trough of disillusionment (according to Gartner, we’re already there). As companies begin to realize that they went into the cloud with the wrong expectations and that their investments aren’t paying off, interest in cloud computing will gradually decrease and vendors will have to work hard to reposition their offerings and evolve their services to the point where they become useful for the mainstream. If, as I’ve said before, this is a year of experimentation with the cloud, stories of failure that lead to reduced interest should soon start to appear.

Would such a move be bad? Not necessarily. Reduced interest would not only force the main vendors to improve their offerings, but also lead to improved definitions and understanding of what the cloud can (and what it cannot) do for companies. One key example comes to my mind: I keep hearing people talking about moving applications to the cloud in order to achieve cost reductions. The cloud does not lead directly to cost reductions. It instead allows you to optimize your costs by spinning up and taking down servers as needed, without having to pre-provision excess capacity. Maybe if more companies fail to achieve cost reductions this cloud myth will disappear for good.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that going through the trough of disillusionment doesn’t mean that companies should stay away from a technology. It only means that the myths surrounding the technology are being dispelled, and that reality is starting to set in. As it does, and as vendors improve their offerings, early adopters may be very well positioned to capture its market value.

As usual, the most important thing is to be able to separate the truth from the myths of the cloud. The proper expectations can not only keep you from feeling disappointed, they can actually help direct a move to the cloud with the selection of proper use cases and strategies. Where do you think we are with respect to the hype cycle of the cloud? Please share in the comments. Take the poll below and let us know what you are using the cloud for right now.