The cloud is a major business transformation that democratises technology. But the term is often applied to any established or internet-based services, and is only one part of a larger IT landscape.

These were contentions made during technology association NZICT’s Great Cloud debate on October 4. An audience of 60 or 70 people in Auckland watched as two industry figures argued for the cloud as “game changer” against two positing the term as a lot of “hot air”.

Attendees favoured the game changers, but both sides made valid points, and even arrived at some agreement.

“We’ve heard all this crap before for years,” said Doug Wilson, CIO at the Automobile Association. “It’s not a new technology; it’s a new name. It’s the buzzword de jour being applied to a collection of older technologies packaged and sold in a new way.”

Wilson argued that the true revolution was in telecommunications, beginning in the 1990s when countries became less protective of their national ICT infrastructure. This opened the door for the internet to be deployed as a commercial delivery channel. Wilson says that he has heard various services, such as Amazon EC2, Skype, Gmail and being described as ‘cloud’-based, suggesting the terminology was abused given the only commonality was delivery over the internet.

Wilson said the cloud was still hampered by major reliability, data sovereignty and security issues. He conceded that the cloud was a “sensible method for provisioning computer resources on demand and it does fulfill a market niche…[but it’s not] the answer to every IT problem nor is it the future of IT, just a small part of it.”

TelstraClear’s head of business and government Andrew Crabb had already made a utility argument for the cloud, comparing it to owning a restaurant versus simply paying for the kind of meal you want, when you want it.

“There is confusion about the definition of the cloud, so for this argument...let’s accept it’s the leveraging of services offered by a third party, rather than having to own everything yourself,” Crabb said. “It’s on demand, scalable and measurable... It’s not only needed, it’s smart. We can’t do everything ourselves, nor do we want to.”

Crabb’s debate partner, consultant and commentator Ben Kepes, went past the utility argument. Kepes, who referred to his opponents as “dinosaurs,” said security and data sovereignty issues had already been addressed and mitigated. He did however find common ground with the opposing side in that the debate was not about technology.

“I don’t argue heavily that the cloud is a major technology advancement,” Kepes said. “What people need to understand is that the cloud is absolutely a business transformation. It’s about putting technology into the hands of people who need it when they need it. It’s a democratisation, and that’s a game changer.”

The concern over Internal Revenue Department requirements regarding information sent to overseas data centres had been addressed also, he said. Reliability was even less of an issue for cloud services providers because they have a greater business motive to ensure uptime than other organisations.

IT consultant Brett Roberts said that those reliability and security issues remained for data going overseas. But he also suggested that the definition of cloud services has been muddled by overuse.

“Is the cloud hot air or a game-changer? I think it’s a combination of both,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of cloud-washing going on... Is it a good thing to do as part of an ecosystem checklist? Of course. Is it the be all and end all? No. Why? Because nothing ever has been.”

Earlier in the debate, Wilson argued that worries over the fate of data in the cloud could be countered by working with trusted resellers.

“For most SMBs, I contend that a good local IT consultant in the long run is still the better option,” he said. “A local IT firm is probably the best call, because it’s a one cost solution that covers most everything and you can budget for it because the cost is locked in for the length of the contract, and someone still has got to look after the PCs.”

In a follow-up Q&A session, both sides agreed that the utility of cloud services was not based on the size of a company, but on the type of workload. Renaissance CIO and debate moderator Doug Casement declared Crabb and Kepes the winner after asking for a round of applause from the audience.