Inside the Cloud: 9 Sectors to Watch

There’s already a ton of activity taking place in the cloud computing space, so much so that it can be hard to know who to watch. In many cases, it’s too early to pick winners. But there are distinct sectors of the IT industry that are particularly well suited to the on-demand, pay-as-you-go economics of cloud computing. Here are eight segments — and one company that’s a segment all its own — that we’re tracking closely. [digg=]

Hosting companies that make the jump: When it comes to reliable managed hosting, Rackspace leads the pack. (Its VMware-based Mosso offering may appeal more to enterprises trying the cloud for the first time.) Clouds like XCalibre’s Flexiscale and Joyent are already there, but don’t have Rackspace’s installed base.

Stack-specific clouds: While Google and Amazon get the headlines, Engine Yard is heavily involved in the Ruby on Rails development community. Competitor Heroku is also Rails-focused, but relies on Amazon for its hosting platform.

Tools to wrangle virtual machines: To manage your EC2 machines, you’re going to need help. RightScale makes software for managing machines in the cloud; its tight focus on Amazon has made it an early favorite. Elastra, Enomalism and others have similar solutions.

Testing sandboxes: For many enterprises, a testing sandbox is the perfect way to start using on-demand infrastructure. CohesiveFT’s Skytap (a sister to Flexiscale) spins up testing machines in a cloud, but incumbent Surgient and recent entrant StackSafe aren’t far behind. And once you’ve tested a machine and seen that it works, why not leave it in the cloud?

Cloud-based development platforms: Companies like Rollbase and Coghead let non-developers build data-driven applications of any sort (as opposed to more specialized platforms like those of Salesforce and Ning.) But Intuit’s Quickbase, which now has access to Quickbooks data, has a head start: Millions of small businesses. Is this how SMB gets cloud?

Scaling frameworks: Wall Street needed fast, reliable applications that grew easily. Instead of adding more, bigger servers, they used Gigaspaces to bundle whole server clusters into discrete “processing units” that can be cloned to add capacity. In addition to being faster and scaling better, these units don’t care whether they’re in a private data center or a cloud.

Application delivery networks: What has tens of thousands of servers worldwide, a global network connecting them, and isn’t Google? Akamai. What was once a way of getting bits to far-flung corners of the Net is an often-overlooked cloud: Akamai has been able to run code at the edge since 2000. Its 2007 acquisition of Netli made it matter to enterprises even more. Akamai can weather heavy load and may be able to withstand attacks better than centralized clouds.

Cloud builders: 3Tera lets companies get into the cloud business. Enterprises can make in-house clouds on existing data centers; or service providerscan build their own cloud offeringsin the way Enki and others have. In 3Tera’s model, subscribers drag and drop the firewalls, servers and appliances they need. The company’s software then maps these virtual application stacks to servers and network segments. The results are impressive: On seeing 3Tera for the first time, ESM guru John Willis was so impressed he insisted on logging in to the icons on his screen to verify that it wasn’t just a demo.

The obvious one: Of the three big virtualization firms, only one (Microsoft) also has millions of desktops, two handset platforms, licensing for desktops, servers and applications, synchronization, and a huge online presence. Up until now, the Redmond giant has been treading carefully; it has to convert billions of dollars of shrink-wrap sales to on-demand revenue streams. But Microsoft’s going to be a huge player in the cloud.

For more insights into cloud computing trends, check out the recent GigaOM/Bitcurrent briefing on cloud computing that was launched at Structure 08.