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VARs, distributors assess their cloud computing role

Hype aside, cloud computing is coming and channel execs parse opportunities and threats in the upcoming transition.

DENVER -- Whether you think cloud computing will account for 5% or closer to 25% of technology consumption and projects in five years, solution providers have more questions than answers about the cloud's benefits and about their own relevance in that brave new world.

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The first question very well might be: "What IS cloud computing?"

During a keynote presentation at this week's Ingram Micro VentureTech Network (VTN) Fall Invitational in Denver, Justin Crotty, vice president of services for distributor Ingram Micro Inc., said that despite much "fear and loathing" of the concept, there are five simple ways to recognize a cloud computing model.

  1. The hardware and virtualization technology that make it work are hidden from users.
  2. Access to features is billed according to a per-use transaction model.
  3. The computing power is "elastic" and able to scale as necessary according to usage loads.
  4. High availability is a given and is guaranteed.
  5. The infrastructure is multi-tenant; it can handle more than one customer.

Like several vendor executives and many solution providers at the VTN conference, Crotty said the channel definitely has a role to play. There are four areas where the VAR's insight will be critical: Ensuring security of customer data, guaranteeing availability of applications, offering seamless integration of on-premise applications and services delivered via the cloud, and customizing cloud-based applications.

"The customer experience is our collective responsibility," Crotty said.

A cloud roundtable discussion at the Invitational packed a smallish hotel breakout room with nearly 100 people. The session was meant to outline topic priorities for the distributor's cloud services advisory group and for a scheduled online discussion on Nov. 20 in the VTN Zone social community. But it quickly devolved into a debate about contract liability, compliance and due diligence.

Top priorities for the VTN members include guidance for how to best evaluate the technical viability of various cloud architectures, insight into industry-specific compliance obligations, and tips for dealing with quality of service liability issues.

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," said Ken Totura, vice president of sales for Heit Inc., a managed services provider in Fort Collins, Colo. Industry certifications and other recognized seals of approval will be critical for building trust, he added.

As was the case for the ongoing managed services transition, many smaller solution providers believe they may need to partner with larger services and infrastructure options to offer cloud options to their customers or they risk being left out. At the same time, the question of which cloud computing technologies are trustworthy is still largely unanswered, and VTN members say they are looking to distributors such as Ingram Micro to help them vet appropriate partners.

"How we need to analyze these technologies, tools and services will be critical in the role we choose to play," said Alan McDonald, president and COO of Las Vegas-based XiloCore, a VTN cloud advisory council member.

Research from Gartner Inc. shows that approximately 58% of channel companies surveyed in mid-2009 believe that by 2012, more than 25% of all IT will be delivered via non-traditional models such as the cloud, grid or utility computing. Of the 42% of solution providers that said no to that, 13% indicated they thought the number would be higher, while the rest thought it would be lower.

Tiffani Bova, vice president and analyst for Gartner, said the benefits of cloud computing from an end-user standpoint include access to technology they can't otherwise acquire, flexibility from a scalability and usage standpoint, and the ability to free up internal IT resources from management tasks. The downsides include compliance concerns and the cost of integration with legacy applications, she said.

Guy Baroan, owner of VTN member Baroan Technologies in Elmwood Park, N.J., said cloud services will be most relevant for smaller companies that haven't traditionally had access to certain enterprise applications. However, he doubts that companies with an investment in on-site infrastructure will be quick to move to the model.

Indeed, Ingram Micro's Crotty said he believes VARs must juggle cloud and managed services expertise with more traditional IT services skills, such as product implementation, maintenance services and application integration. Many projects will include elements of both. "There needs to be a balanced approach," Crotty said.

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