The Networked Cloud

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The deal announced Wednesday between IBM ( IBM) and AT&T ( T) to join forces for building secure corporate clouds was seen by ComputerWorld's Richi Jennings on his blog as appealing to "fearful firms."

But it reminds me of something very important about cloud technology and how it's evolving. As Greg Johnsen wrote at Wired a few months ago, "the future belongs to cloud-networked companies."

The future is not about "a" cloud, or "the" cloud. It's about a network of compatible clouds, clouds that can move workloads anywhere, which have redundancy, which are, in short, everything the Internet itself is.

Google ( GOOG) and Amazon.Com ( AMZN)both offer networked clouds, but as we learned when Amazon's Washington-area data center was hit by lightning in June, reported in Forbes , you have to pay up for that.

Cloud technology uses virtualization and distributed computing techniques to let you address a whole bunch of commodity PCs as though they were one system. This lets you scale services to demand and serve a whole bunch of people if they decide to rush your Web site after you run an ad on, say, the Super Bowl.

Right now, most customers of public clouds are going for the cost savings. It's an adjunct to their "real" enterprise systems. But IT managers worldwide are rubbing their hands with glee, looking to a day when they can scrap their IT rooms entirely.

That will take time to make happen, but meanwhile they're experimenting with single cloud installations of their own, called "private" clouds, and making those installations a back-end to public cloud workloads, creating "hybrid" clouds.

But when they look out, three-to-five years into the future, they insist on keeping everything they have now. They want security guarantees, they want to know who to call if things go wrong. In short, when big enterprises think of the networked cloud they want the savings of cloud, and the global reach of cloud, along with the security and control they have with enterprise systems.

What this tells me is that the cloud market is not going to remain a free-for-all, with hundreds of companies jostling for position and offering bits and pieces of a solution. It's going to consolidate, probably around the biggest public cloud players, because giving enterprises what they demand requires scale.

It says something about how this is evolving that IBM doesn't think it can reach that 2017 opportunity without AT&T as a network partner.

IBM wants to be the "high-end" of the cloud market, not the cheap generic but the big-time brand the Fortunate 500 and big government call on first, as it is today for enterprise computing. It already has solid networked security, thanks to its purchase of Internet Security Systems in Atlanta a decade ago. Now it's going to connect ISS to AT&T's global network operations, monitoring sections of that network as it monitors client systems now.

I visited ISS's offices a few years ago. Their NASA-like network control centers are staffed 24/7. Behind them are teams of security experts, backed by genius programmers who can take apart a virus faster than you get dressed for work.

It's an office building but it has the feel of a university lab and the workstyle is modeled on that. For customers it's a systems approach, sold as a service on top of everything else IBM does.

I think it's well worth the money.

Latching that to actual data lines, teamed to compatible clouds in many places around the world, gives IBM that high end of the cloud market, a high end for which demand has not yet evolved. But the only way to win in any technology trend is to get ahead of it, so when they talk about three "cloud networks" five years from now, they'll probably be talking about Amazon, Google and IBM.

This deal is not big now, but it points to cloud's future, and how it will in time replace enterprise computing with something that can feel, to a corporate user, just as my own networked desktop feels to me.

At the time of publication, the author was long IBM and GOOG.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.