This past spring I participated in several events with Microsoft and EMC where we met with IT professionals from many different types of businesses. We discussed a number of topics revolving around the evolution of the data center, including virtualization and the advent of cloud computing. Virtualization is clearly a mainstream technology that almost everyone is using. However, in spite of the deluge of cloud computing marketing messages from all the cloud vendors, most of the IT professionals in attendance viewed the cloud as a future technology that’s still on the horizon. In spite of what the vendors of various cloud offerings might want you to think, these IT pros were not clamoring for cloud solutions.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a lot of interest in the cloud and in the different types of cloud solutions that are available. However, for the most part the cloud is still clearly an exploratory technology, not one that IT pros are ready to jump into with both feet. The main interest was in learning about how to take better advantage of virtualization both in regard to server consolidation as well as how to move into application virtualization. For the cloud, the interest was mostly about trying to define what the cloud is and then to gauge the benefits that are offered by the different types of cloud solutions.

I see a number of factors that make real customers reticent about cloud computing. First, this reluctance, no doubt, is in part due to the fact that most companies have already made very significant investments in their on-premises infrastructure. Sure, there will always be new start-ups and perhaps for them the cloud might hold greater appeal. But the fact is that by and large today’s corporate IT infrastructure is already established—and it works. Today’s cloud offerings aren’t providing these businesses with any essential functionality that they don’t already have. Moving incrementally to the cloud is a possibility, but that approach involves the unknown and risk, both of which are factors IT pros like to avoid.

Next, in spite of all the hype, every single major cloud vendor has had high profile outages in the last year. Everyone has heard of these outages and although cloud proponents quickly downplay these failures, most IT professionals believe the public cloud is an immature technology and anything that’s based on the Internet is going to experience downtime.

Finally, there are the questions of performance and security. Even if the public cloud is up, it’s a shared solution and it might not perform as well as dedicated servers. Putting vital corporate assets into a publicly accessible location such as the cloud is definitely a concern for IT pros I talked to.

However, although IT pros had concerns about the public cloud, two scenarios in particular were seen as viable options: Office 365 and other immediately usable Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, and the private cloud tools. Office 365 and other SaaS solutions hold appeal because they are ready-to-use solutions. In the case of Office 365, the application isn’t seen as mission critical. In other words, it’s OK if it doesn’t work part of the time. Cloud availability issues aren’t a showstopper. Next, businesses know they are struggling with ways to keep desktop Office installations updated. Many are using older versions of Office, and upgrading to each subsequent newer version involves a lot of cost and effort.  Finally, the concept of using these types of services for applications really isn’t anything new. Many businesses already use web-based software applications such as SalesForce.com.

Unlike the public cloud, which is an entity shrouded in mystery and not just a little bit of confusion, the private cloud was perceived to be a much more appealing and approachable possibility with the IT pros I talked to. Because the private cloud is built on top of your own infrastructure using technologies such as virtualization that are already in widespread use, there’s a much higher degree of confidence in the private cloud. Concerns about public access, Internet outages, and security also go away. The private cloud is comprised of collections of virtual machines. Pools of similarly configured virtual machines can be managed as a single service. Technologies such as Hyper-V Live Migration or VMware VMotion are used for dynamic workload balancing and power management. The private cloud is the next step in the evolution of the data center and products such as VMware’s vCloud Director and Microsoft’s upcoming Virtual Machine Manager 2012 enable you to create and manage a private cloud that’s built on top of your existing IT infrastructure.

SaaS and private cloud options require less risk from the IT pro and are likely to be adopted before we see major migrations to the public cloud.