While the consensus appears to be that it is only a matter of time before businesses make a definitive move to cloud computing, loosely defined as virtual computing, such a transition is still looked upon with some apprehension in certain quarters.

The economic incentives of moving to the cloud remain strong. With users able to access all of their applications or data from any networked device, cloud computing can make a business more flexible, help to radically cut fixed costs, such as IT maintenance, and bring huge technological advantages, including rapid scalability. Arguably, it is also a greener way of doing business. Yet its weaknesses loom large in the background. Data protection and disaster recovery are real risks and remain serious concerns.

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Microsoft has made a mission out of building client trust in IT and in the world of cloud computing it aims to set the standards in all matters to do with security. Adrienne Hall, general manager of Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, believes that security challenges have been met and that even if the future is hard to predict, the cloud is to be trusted.

Security challenges

When asked what the security challenges for cloud providers were, Ms Hall shares what she says are the three questions commonly asked by Microsoft clients: “How are you building secure and privacy-enhanced services? What’s the infrastructure that it’s running on – how are you managing the data centres, what are you doing around protecting the information in the data centres? And what is your incident response capability?”

Improvements in all three areas are forthcoming. Microsoft just recently proved it could tackle emergencies effectively following the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan this year, when it switched from a data centre 225 kilometres south of the epicentre to one located in the west of the US without any disruption to services. Other companies such as McAfee and TrendMicro have developed new ways of protecting against malware and data loss, while Equinix is committed to improving the performance of its data centres.

Transparency remains a key issue for many businesses, and cloud providers have a reputation for being elusive when it comes to signing up to a cloud covenant. It remains crucial, however, for businesses to understand risk and to pay close attention to service level agreements. Ms Hall knows this and while she reiterates Microsoft’s commitment to transparency, she also speaks of a “shared responsibility between industry, technology providers and law enforcement” in building a safer cloud.

Global interest

While Ms Hall sees that business is very enthusiastic for cloud computing, she says that it is too early to tell exactly what shape that enthusiasm will take: “We’re not seeing one market adopt faster than others, we’re seeing people’s interest levels rise globally.”

Yet many point to Europe as the new battleground for cloud. It is here perhaps that the cultural resistance to cloud will be overcome most rapidly, aided by the generational momentum of a new class of iPad and a culture of 'addicted' employees who are more used to working via the web and less sensitive to its risks.

Either way, cloud solutions are likely to be varied. Large companies, less concerned with cost cuts than with delivering high performance, may be more inclined than small and medium-sized enterprises to choose hybrid solutions. Ms Hall remains confident, however, that “in the longer term, we’ll see more businesses in the public cloud”. One thing appears likely: there will be clear skies for cloud computing in business.