“Cloud computing will revolutionize IT!” shouts an IT rag in an article laced with superlatives that, like the promise of “Free Prize Inside,” a child’s favorite cereal finds you digging for more only to be left with a stomach ache and a worthless trinket. Despite almost daily press releases from the vendor du jour claiming how their product or service is “cloud ready,” few can concisely articulate what exactly “the cloud” is, and how it is conceptually or pragmatically different from your run of the mill, but decidedly unsexy, hosted enterprise application or service.

While talk of clouds may get marketers hearts palpitating, and make for inspiring ad copy, most CIOs would do well not to believe the hype. If talk of cloud computing feels like déjà vu all over again, it is likely due to the fact that cloud computing is, in one way or another the same thing we have been doing for decades: connecting disparate applications and services around the world through a hodgepodge of networks, often not owning or having direct control over many of the components. It has been called SaaS, hosted applications, e-commerce and other decidedly gauche monikers before, but the concepts and execution are fundamentally the same. Arguably that boring, but ubiquitous relic from the 1980’s, EDI could be given a shiny new polyester suit and silver “cloud” badge with a minimum of marketing polishing.

If hosted apps did not make sense to your organization a few years ago, putting another layer of buzzword frosting on a stale cake will likely make little practical difference, and basing your IT department’s strategy on “cloud computing” with little understanding of the business risks and benefits is as solid a footing as a cloud itself. You’ll be well ahead of the curve, and far more respected in the boardroom if you quickly move beyond the hype cycle with the cloud, and look at how moving applications outside the firewall might have a concrete business benefit that outweighs the obvious risks.

If you want to fast-track your cloud strategy, dust off the months of work you likely already spent looking at hosted applications like Salesforce.com or Google in the past.

Buzzwords and trends have certainly sold large and expensive IT forays in the past; the executives (or even whole organizations) who chased these mercurial entities with no strategy or tactical plan that acknowledged the potential benefits and quantified the potential risks usually suffered greatly or ceased to exist. Your peers in the C-suite will quickly see cloud computing for what it is: technical and functional outsourcing. If the crux of your strategy around dealing with the cloud is a glorified version of: “But the IT press says clouds are ‘in,'” you will quickly be elbowed out of the boardroom.

Whatever you want to call it, cloud computing certainly has its merits, but behind all the hype there are very real risks to go along with the potential rewards. There were continuity, security, extensibility, and usability pros and cons back before “the cloud” arrived on the scene, and they are still just as real today, despite the new terminology.