The 10-hour flight to Los Angeles was definitely disruptive, redeemed by a relaxing two-hour run up the coast to Santa Barbara. This Californian enclave proved to be a real personal discovery. A Spanish foundation two centuries back, it is now a prosperous university and resort town, home to two cloud startups (Eucalyptus and RightScale) and, inland, rich wine country.

For this was the start of a serious week-long study tour, an enquiry into the current realities and practicalities of the cloud with a group of US and UK CIOs. And if I brought one theme back to the UK from the study tour, it is that of disruption.

For a start, the 17 October issue of The Economist on the newsstands as I flew out of Heathrow had ‘The Battle Over Cloud Computing' as its cover story. The battle, we learnt, is between Amazon, Google and Microsoft. No mention of the IT and outsourcing majors like IBM, HP/EDS, CSC. Disruptive? I will leave you to judge.

After our meetings in Santa Barbara, we travelled north, and in San Francisco we met the CIO of the global contracting major Bechtel. Some years back, he had his folk study Google's computing ops. One conclusion was that to match Google's server farm productivity, Bechtel would have to operate with 0.15 of a server farm administrator for the whole of Bechtel's Group worldwide computing ops. We are talking of one administrator being responsible for 2500 machines, and I suspect Google is well ahead of that productivity measure now. Disruptive? I will leave you to judge.

He also challenged his team to find out what YouTube was paying for its network services - he could not square the then Bechtel network contracts with YouTube's apparent ability to freely throw video streams around the Net. YouTube, it turned out, was paying a tiny fraction of the sums billed for Bechel. Behind that order of magnitude pricing difference lay some significant structural realities (for example, YouTube apparently co-locates its server farms on major telecom network switching nodes) and raw negotiating power that only a company purchasing on a huge scale can hope to have. Disruptive? I will leave you to judge.

On the tour was the IT lead for the R&D operations of a major global pharmaceutical company. Their CEO had cut budgets sharply, while simultaneously demanding an increase in R&D output. One focus of attention was the highly variable demands for the raw computing power required to run the heavyweight modelling that lies at the heart of so much contemporary research chemistry.

The solution was found in the cloud with the likes of the Amazon Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2). The sourcing of chunks of computing power is rapid, and you pay only for what you use. Our colleague said it was about ‘minutes and pennies'. But his corporate IT service was about ‘weeks and (thousands of) pounds'. Disruptive? I will leave you to judge.