It's at the top of the hype charts. It probably won't save you money, especially in the short term. It needs more standards. And, it's going to transform the economic model for computing. It, of course, is cloud computing -- one of the most powerful business computing trends we've seen in years.

Four experts on the subject provided a broad, ranging overview of the topic on Wednesday during the Cloud Computing Symposium at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. David Cearley, vice president and fellow for Gartner, set the stage by defining cloud computing as "a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT-related capabilities are provided as a service to external customers using Internet technologies." He added other attributes to the cloud phenomenon, calling it a service that is shared and metered by use.

However, Cearley warned about one of the biggest cloud computing hypes. "It won't automatically save money," he cautioned. But when it is used to deal with services and applications that are impacted by spikes in demand, cloud computing can show a return on investment.

Cloud computing has three focal points, according to Cearley. First, it's about consuming external cloud services; second, the cloud is about applications; and third, it can morph into private cloud computing, which involves internal customers only. The bottom line, however, is cloud computing is far from mature, he said.

An Immature Cloud

One reason for cloud computing's immaturity is tied to the lack of standards, according to Richard Soley, chairman and CEO of the Object Management Group. As exciting as cloud IT has become, without a solid array of standards for security, interfaces, portability and management, the trend will struggle with success, he cautioned. "We need to develop user cases to help drive standards, as well as support from vendors," said Soley. One avenue to make that happen can be found at http://cloud-standards.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page.

Erich Clementi, vice president for enterprise initiatives at IBM, took the long view of cloud computing, predicting that its true value will be economic. "You will be able to take lots of costs out [of government computing] by using this new model. It's a very promising journey," he said.

Russ Daniels, vice president and chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard subsidiary EDS, pointed out that cloud computing provides government with new choices in terms of services and data sharing. "It's important to make the right choices and to understand the tradeoffs," he said. For example, cloud computing facilitates data sharing, but that opportunity can affect information security. For that reason, CIOs and their business partners need to decide what information is relevant for sharing in a cloud environment.

Gartner's Cearley believes that in the short term, cloud computing will find its niche in services, helping organizations deal with spikes in service demands. But long term, the cloud will eventually be optimized for solutions that could be transformative. Helping to make that happen will be a new breed of players: cloud brokers and cloud integrators.

But he cautioned that cloud computing is currently at the peak of its hype cycle, which means the hype will soon crash when many organizations decide this isn't the right time to jump in. Eventually, cloud computing will find its plateau, so be patient.