Clouds appear in the sky, continually changing form - seemingly creating whatever our imagination desires. And now the same is true of that other type of cloud - used for computing - with customers desiring greater flexibility and choice.
Hence the era of the hybrid cloud is upon us, one that combines the cost advantages of the public cloud with the private-cloud security benefits of ring-fencing your own servers. The blended model is finding favour with more companies needing to ramp up their cloud capacity without paying through the nose to do so.
That perhaps reflects the wider trend in technology markets where consumers will not hang around waiting for goods and services. One click too many and the customer may never return. This has had a knock-on effect for IT companies that need to stay fleet of foot and innovative without letting their guard drop.
George O'Connor, an analyst with stockbroker Panmure Gordon, says hybrid cloud is becoming a middle road for many businesses. "Hybrid cloud is neither one thing nor the other, but is somewhere in between," he says. "However, hybrid cloud tries to marry the best of both worlds, the scale and cost benefits of cloud with the security and data curation of on-premise software.
"In these uncertain times, both these have become more important for corporate IT buyers and hence the recent resurgence of interest in hybrid cloud. The solution appeals to users who want to be trendy and also conservative," he says.
The mixed model allows companies to segregate their service between critical and non-critical functions. An e-commerce website, for example, could be hosted in a private cloud to ensure customer details, such as transaction history and bank accounts, could be stored securely. However, the brochure site, where customers can scour for products or deals, could be moved to a lower-cost public cloud environment.
Cloud services specialists Interoute notes that an infrastructure-as-service provider could exploit the model to store sensitive client data in the private cloud, while allowing project planning and collaboration among multiple users on the public cloud. The trend provides a huge opportunity for companies ranging from HP to smaller data-centre companies such as iomart and even network players including Interoute.
Simon Michie, chief technical officer at Redcentric, points out the benefits of hybrid cloud model for innovative companies. "The art of innovation in a hybrid-cloud world is to nurture the requisite imagination and creativity within your business deliberately, be prepared to invest speculatively, and successfully orchestrate the available range of on-demand, enabling technologies to deliver solutions that align with your goals," he says. "The game-changer with hybrid cloud is the relative affordability, accessibility and deployment speed."
The hybrid cloud has effectively democratised the IT process for many companies, according to Mr Michie. "Cloud has taken down barriers to entry and its 'out-of-the-box' nature allows the innovator to focus on ends, not means," he says. "Through the use of cloud, an entrepreneur can immediately gain access to the same technologies as their more established competitor. They can challenge and create new business models, and they can rapidly scale."
That is not to say hybrid cloud will be a phenomenon only among small and mid-sized companies. "A larger organisation can now afford to run a portfolio of innovation projects where previously they could only run one at a time. The mantra is to learn fast and succeed or fail fast. With cloud, the innovator can realise their vision with a rapidity and assurance never available before," says Mr Michie.
That is clear in one of the larger hybrid cloud deals to be signed. HP tempted the huge logistics company TNT to commit to a hybrid system this year. The six-year deal, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, will result in the number of TNT data centres being reduced from eleven to two.
As well as building TNT's defined data-centre networks, based on HP servers, storage and networking, and delivering HP-managed security services, HP will move the company towards an infrastructure-as-a-service model that will deliver savings and innovation. "This open standards-based common architecture cloud platform enables new capabilities, such as 'bursting' workloads, which will allow TNT to consume and pay for capacity only when needed," says HP.
The ability to support and deliver the "parallel universes" of the cloud is increasingly essential for companies such as HP and IBM to respond to customers' needs.
But the path to a hybrid cloud paradigm won't necessarily be swift. Kate Hanaghan, research director at TechMarketView, says: "The migration of large swathes of corporate IT into the cloud will happen over a period of many years. However, for organisations that rapidly need to adjust the cost and their use of large data-centre estates, cloud is playing an important role in the more immediate term. More specifically, it is typically the perceived 'safety' of private cloud that has been the preferred first step for large enterprise buyers looking to make significant, strategic investments.
"The medium-to-long-term aspiration for most organisations will be a hybrid-computing environment that uses a blend of cloud - public and private - and on-premise technologies. Suppliers, therefore, must be able to provide cloud services alongside managing existing legacy systems. Indeed, we believe the ability of suppliers simultaneously to support and deliver these 'parallel universes' of legacy and 'new world' technologies will become absolutely essential."