being inundated with more and more data. Single machines become incapable of processing these vast amounts of information and eventually will fail. Buying more machines becomes unfeasible - particularly for public-sector organizations limited by budgets.

"Networks are getting faster and faster. Two computers connected to each other via network are much more like a dual processor machine than they were five years ago," said Bisciglia. "So basically you need to scale out horizontally now. When you want more computational power, you can't just wait for computers to get faster; you can't just buy a faster processor. You need to add more computers in a network's configuration and interact with another cluster, rather than as a single machine."

Cloud computing isn't as far off as it might initially seem. In fact, it's already happening in some respects, but it goes by yet another name: software as a service (SaaS).

SaaS has been around in one form (application service provider, or ASP) or another for a while. It functions via the same principles as cloud computing. Instead of users investing in more computing infrastructure to complete tasks, they can instead access someone else's cloud to do the work.

Salesforce.com has been a leader in the SaaS industry for years by hosting customer relationship management (CRM) solutions for organizations that can't or won't invest in the infrastructure to do it themselves. The company is now heavily involved in applications that extend beyond CRM, opening its cloud to anyone who wants access.

Salesforce.com also offers users a platform service that lets them create their own unique applications in the cloud - and users can keep the applications for themselves or share them with others.

"Platform user service really allows customers to have computing power delivered completely as a utility in the cloud," said Dan Burton, senior vice president of global public policy for Salesforce.com, "so customers can then use the cloud computing architecture to build, test, deploy and run applications in the cloud. What that really means for customers and developers is, instead of going to a preconfigured application, they can really go into the cloud, and using our programming language, APEX, they can custom build any application they want to."

It may not be the stuff that cloud computing dreams are made of, but it represents the inroads that are being made into cloud computing, which are available to an IT crowd desperate to produce more with less.

One obstacle to life in the clouds is security. Public-sector organizations trade heavily in sensitive data; the thought of letting that data loose in some ethereal cluster of random machines is likely to send shivers up CIOs' spines. It makes sense that early cloud activity takes place in an environment mediated by a large, established company like Salesforce.com, which is why several public-sector organizations are already taking their first steps into the cloud using Salesforce.com's tools.

Mike Goodrich, the director of administration at Arlington Economic Development (AED) in Virginia, said his foray into the cloud isn't about grand ideas of having a virtual supercomputer to do his bidding. Rather, it allows his agency to do business better.

AED creates economic opportunities for Arlington; generally this is accomplished by attracting tourists and businesses to the city. By putting some of its processes, such as event registration, into Salesforce's cloud, it frees IT staff to concentrate on providing better service instead of maintaining equipment.

"Our IT staff has not had to invest their time, effort and money into maintaining servers," he said. "They've been able to simply know Salesforce is maintaining our data. So there's very little involvement from our infrastructure support. It's not really money saved. What it does is

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com