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.



While in the Bay Area, we visited Google for an update on Goggle Apps. Since releasing this business service out of the cloud in 2007, Google has been developing a fast-growing customer base - Jaguar Land Rover and the handset division of Motorola being the two most recent clients - and its £/$/€5 per-user per-month price point is the standard for integrated desktop services. During our visit we learnt of the steady stream of new features that Google is adding to the service set - for example in October a Gmail offline capability and a Google suite for Microsoft's Outlook. This business version has default settings that deactivate Google's data mining tendencies. Disruptive? I will leave you to judge.

Disruptions bring opportunity, both for the client enterprise (Bechtel, operating in a very competitive marketplace, has certainly driven out a lot of cost) and for the vendor enterprise. But in reality most enterprises are still cautious about leaping into the cloud. Security has been one very real concern, although the consensus is that the cloud industry is tackling the issue head-on, and with success.

Nonetheless, a recent IBM study pointed at a strong enterprise preference for private clouds. Back in Santa Barbara, Eucalyptus' business model is a software implementation layer that sits on-premise, on top of the networking layers where most enterprise security and operational modus operandi is embedded, and enables the virtualisation of on-premise operations to create a private cloud. Based on the EC2 API set, it can offer a seamless gateway into the EC2 to handle surges in demand.

RightScale's business model, on the other hand, is to add a front end to public clouds such as Amazon's and provide the control and dashboard features and services required by the enterprise.

Thus, the means to craft effective and secure transformational pathways from in-house, on-premise to private cloud and on into the public cloud are being developed and offered, and young entrepreneurial ventures are in head-on competition with the likes of IBM, VMware and Microsoft.