Virtualisation presents real challenges. On the one hand, as an enabling technological capability, it frees us from the restraints of legacy architectures of the tightly coupled to exploit the new architectures of the loosely coupled. We can create new environments ‘in the virtual' that are real, and yet are not real. A colleague of mine created a virtual laptop on the internet and loaded it with the latest Microsoft offer to test the new software hard for several days, and then equally rapidly destroyed the virtual laptop.

On the other hand, working in the virtual presents real challenges to the more practical-minded. At a recent workshop, I collaborated with a lead technical manager for a major government department and his facilities management outsourcing partner. The partner runs the datacentre facilities that the government department uses.

In a discussion on cloud computing, I observed that the supplier could likely offer very significant operational cost reductions and increased flexibility by integrating the government department's FM'd datacentre into a wider, virtual cloud capability, with boundaries guaranteed to protect UK government data. The government manager would have none of that - ‘I need to be able to walk into the datacentre and knock on the tin and know that that is where my data is', was his response.

All of which leads me to the title of this piece. I recently commuted to and fro across London to a conference on ‘The Rise & Meaning of Cloud Computing'. And although the conference was about the cloud, one of the most frequently used terms used by the speakers was ‘platform'.

The cloud is, as yet, an ill-defined concept. A bit like the battle of the techie 1.0s and 2.0s, it is at that stage where it presents different realities to different people, who articulate it in ways that very much depend on the nature of the commercial axe they have to grind.

There are certain realities to build on, none the less. At the heart of the cloud phenomenon is the transformation of the IT industry's classic technical offerings into services - what I label as technology-enabled business services. The combination of standardisation and virtualisation enables commoditisation, so that, whether you are in the market for infrastructural ‘stuff' or application ‘stuff', there it is, on demand, over the Net.

Infrastructural requirements, from network capacity to data processing capacity to data storage capacity, are made available as infrastructural services. Application requirements, whether commodity desktop, routine back-office payroll, or more specialist application capabilities are also available as a service.

So, a simple reality: if the cloud is to flourish commercially, it needs to be a cloud of business services. And, as clouds are inevitably rather fuzzy concepts, practical business folk need platforms.

The issue is this: what makes a platform, and to what purpose? Is it a platform that integrates infrastructural services to provide an organised structure on which to run a series of business applications for your business? Or is it a business operations platform that provides an organised structure on which business process management marshals the processes that deliver your business? Or perhaps it is the Apple iApps platform on which an ecosystem of small, innovative ventures can provide a flood of capabilities ready to load onto your iPhone?

All three are very different platforms in practice but with key features in common. All are virtual, but no less practical in use for that. All, because of their virtual nature, can be reworked and reformed with ease as circumstances require; the cost of change is small and the benefits of the business agility thus enabled are potentially high. All can be marketed as services in their own right, and there is, thus, an emerging commerce of platforms.

And platforms can of course be built that integrate from inside the cloud to outside the cloud. One venture I advise enables enterprises to rapidly extend their operations globally by offering ‘a platform on which they can expand their in-house capabilities around the world, without the risk, cost, and complexity involved in setting up and operating a direct presence in foreign country'. This is a platform that integrates in-cloud sourced business services with out-of-cloud services such as physical office space.

So let me suggest that the future lies not in the cloud, but in platforms. The dictionary defines the platform as "a raised level surface on which people or things can stand". The entrepreneur behind the company that I advise observes that "a platform allows you to reach lofty goals easier, be that painting a ceiling, distributing applications to more people, running apps on a secure infrastructure that scales indefinitely, or extending your in-house team in another country".

I like visionary entrepreneurs. They are great fun and a challenge to work with. This particular entrepreneur and I are clear that, in the emerging age of the cloud, the real future is in the platform.