NASA photo of a rocket soaring above the cloudsIndustry analysts like to refer to 2011 as “the year the cloud arrived.” But now that it’s here, what are we going to do with it?

We’ve got a few ideas.

Vendors are tripping over themselves to bolster their product lineups with cloud-hosted software and services, while customers in the public and private sectors alike are realizing the cost saving benefit of letting someone else worry about their servers and applications. And that’s not even mentioning the burgeoning consumer cloud market, where even Apple sees ample opportunity.

Despite the hype, there’s a lot of substance to the cloud. Here are five trends that you’ll want to keep an eye on this year.

Hybrid clouds

Pop quiz: You’re an IT administrator at an insurance company, where strict internal mandates and Federal regulations alike require you to keep sensitive customer data on-premises and in your care. But you want to take advantage of affordable, scalable, externally-managed public cloud services, too.

Enter the hybrid cloud. Every vendor has their own definition of what exactly “hybrid cloud” means, but at the core, the idea is that on-premises resources and the public cloud are joined for the best of both worlds. That way, data and applications that need to stay local can do so, while those apps that can be outsourced can get many of the benefits of the public cloud. As cloud computing picks up steam in 2012, more and more businesses are going to find that they need this mixed approach to meet their security and privacy guidelines.

And vendors are ramping up to meet the challenge. On stage at CloudBeat 2011, Oracle technology product marketing VP Rick Schultz listed hybrid cloud enablement as a key priority for the recently-unveiled (and succinctly-named) Oracle Public Cloud. And speaking of CloudBeat, a survey we took at the event found that IT pros had hybrid clouds on their minds. Also, Cloud operating system Nimbula makes hybrid cloud management its specialty.

With this much momentum, it seems likely that plenty of other vendors are going to be putting the hybrid cloud model into the spotlight this year.

Consumer cloud services

Unlike hybrid clouds, this is a trend you can see every day. Chances are pretty good you already have a Dropbox or a Box account for cloud file storage and sharing. Everyone has their choice of Google Apps or Microsoft Office Web Apps for everyday document creation and editing in their browsers. Android devices can choose between Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music for MP3s on the go. And perhaps most influentially, the Apple iPhone 4S brought with it the Apple iCloud, enabling the hordes of iOS customers to keep their music libraries, bookmarks, calendars and other files in sync wherever they go.

As XKCD presciently pointed out, people are increasingly finding that all they need is a browser to get stuff done.

If you need proof that 2012 is only going to make that ball rolling, then just look at this month’s CES coverage. As usual, where Apple goes, the technology market follows, and Acer took the lid off AcerCloud, its shameless iCloud competitor. LG and Gaikai are teaming up to bring video gaming straight from the cloud into your television set. Even Mercedes-Benz is putting a cloud-connected console straight into the dashboard. And so on.

Pretty soon, there’s going to be no escaping the cloud, whether you’re at home, at the office, or even in between.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

Before CES, I would have pegged this as another enterprise-focused, behind-the-scenes kind of avenue of cloud innovation. But then OnLive, best known for streaming video games from the cloud, debuted OnLive Desktop, and opened the door for the consumer, too.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is an acronym that pretty much what it sounds like: Essentially, it gives you a remotely-accessible virtual desktop that simulates a computer that doesn’t (physically) exist. For businesses, the value can be immense: Rather than buy five hundred desktops, just build a VDI cloud or contract one out from a third-party provider, and a dozen people can share one computer’s worth of resources.

As an added benefit, employees can often log on from any computer that has an Internet connection and have their exact same work desktop waiting for them wherever they go. And when the size of the workforce changes, it’s easier and cheaper to provision and delete accounts than it is to buy a new machine or reformat it for a new user. Plus, in the rising “bring-your-own-device” era of IT, the ability to run any enterprise app on a tablet or smartphone is too good a bonus to pass up.

OnLive isn’t the only company that sees market potential here. Startup dinCloud kicked off 2012 by raising a cool million in seed funding for its cloud-hosted VDI service, with investors no doubt drawn by the fact that it launched with support from major players like NetApp. But that’s small potatoes next to the $70 million Goldman Sachs invested in AppSense in the early part of 2011, as it predicted that the VDI market would hit $2 billion over the next several years.

And as the Google Chromebook, the Apple iPad and other mobile devices continue to rise in popularity this year, VDI is in a good place to help make them business-worthy, since what’s under the hood matters a lot less than the strength of the network connection.

Open source and open standards

The OpenStack open source cloud platform may have started in 2010, but 2011 was the year that it really kicked into high gear. Built on community-contributed code, OpenStack aims to let any enterprise deliver its own infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) platform on standard hardware. OpenStack project founders Rackspace and NASA were joined by a community of over 110 other vendors, including heavyweights like HP, Dell and Citrix, as it debuted no less than three major feature releases. And while OpenStack’s leadership openly admits that there’s still a ways to go before it can compete with entrenched vendors like Microsoft and VMware in the data center on its own terms, the platform is maturing quickly and 2012 is going to see many companies build real, functional, salable cloud offerings on top of OpenStack.

But OpenStack isn’t the final word on open source in the cloud by a long shot: Apache Hadoop came out of beta earlier in January, giving companies tools to manage huge amounts of data, and the Oracle Big Data Appliance is already using it. The Open Data Center Alliance is going to continue its mission of improving and standardizing more efficient cloud facility designs. Node.js is only getting more popular for developing web applications. Even US Federal Chief Information Officer and Administrator Steven VanRoekel has publicly trumpeted the development of open standards in the cloud as a priority for his office.

And there are many more initiatives out there, besides. Vendors are moving to both open up and standardize the cloud, with an end goal of completely eradicating the concept of cloud vendor lock-in – which has stood as one of those major obstacles to cloud adoption mentioned before.

Cloud legislation

Here’s where things get a little sticky. There’s a reason Rackspace CEO Lanham Napier was originally slated to testify against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) on January 18th – though with the January 17th announcement that the debate over the controversial would be tabled for a month, Napier never wound up following through.

As a prominent cloud service provider, Rackspace stands to suffer in unforeseen ways under the act. If a customer stores infringing material in their cloud, is Rackspace liable? If so, would they be required to turn off that customer’s access with no warning? And so on, and so forth. SOPA is problematic in many ways, and 2012 is going to bring a lot of confusion before it brings answers.

Meanwhile, across the pond, European businesses are rethinking their own cloud migrations for a reason you may not expect. It turns out that any data stored with a cloud provider based in the USA is legally vulnerable to the Patriot Act, granting American authorities essentially unlimited license to potentially sift and analyze it without ever letting the customer know. Microsoft signed the EU model clauses for its Microsoft Office 365 cloud productivity suite as a way to quell fears, but several analysts have found it to be an insufficient safeguard against that kind of privacy breach. 

The debate over legal issues in the cloud is only going to heat up as we find more questions and fewer answers. And it seems only a matter of time before someone somewhere introduces legislation to try to address these issues.

What do you think?

The cloud’s a busy place these days, and there’s more going on than just five things. Where do you see the cloud going in 2012? Let us know in the comments below.

[Image courtesy of NASA/Flickr]