I went to a lot of cloud computing-related talks at Linuxcon 2011. One of the better ones was by Mark Hinkle of cloud.com.

One of his slides showed what he considers the five characteristics of cloud computing. Two important ones for him are self service, and a measured service. I think those are two useful criteria for distinguishing between a VMware cluster and a cloud that is distinct from a VMware cluster.

It was clear listening to all the talks, including Mark's, is the role of open source in the large clouds. Basically, anyone big is building their service on the open source cloud stacks. Of course, there are a number of open source cloud stacks. One of the challenges is to pick which one to use.

Fortunately, there are serious supporters behind the three main stacks. Eucalyptus has a company called Eucalyptus Systems backing it now, headed up by Marten Mikos of MySQL fame. Cloudstack has cloud.com which is part of Citrix. And the OpenStack project is backed by Rackspace and NASA.

One factor that seems to be important is the hypervisors supported by the cloud stack. OpenStack supports the most right now.

Something that struck me listening to the talks is that the cloud, like so much in IT, isn't a slam dunk solution by itself. You need to know what problem you want to solve, and then figure out how to use the cloud to solve it, if indeed the cloud is a solution to your problem.

Related to that insight, it's clear that unless you solve the problem of monitoring your infrastructure with Zenoss or Nagios, and of provisioning it with Puppet or the like, then you're not going to see much benefit from the cloud.