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We all know that if Gartner says it is a big deal, it must be so.

Seriously though, the ubiquitous analyst firm is spot-on in citing cloud computing as the No. 1 technology area that should drive strategic investment next year. Gartner defines strategic technologies as those with potential for significant business impact over next three years. Analytics and green computing also made their list, for example.

In the case of cloud computing, I concur. Funny, as Microsoft rolls out its next big releases of Windows this week – Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 – one can’t help but wonder if this is the last of such launches. With applications and computing infrastructure moving to the cloud, the way in which we deliver and consume software is going to evolve into something vastly different than the longstanding licensed, on-premise model. And that’s not such good news for Windows.

Looking ahead to next year, where should your strategic investments in cloud computing be made? From a technology point of view, upping your skills investment in virtualization is a good start. Virtualization of applications and other infrastructure is the first step toward prepping your customer’s environments to reside in the cloud.

The other major investment area is less tangible: It’s all about consulting. Many solution providers I talk to are deeply apprehensive about cloud computing because they fear it will marginalize them as customers simply align with one of the public cloud behemoths like Amazon or Google. But it’s not so simple – nor frightening. Customers will very likely use public cloud providers, but determining what they need from a business process and technology capabilities perspective is not something Google’s going to help them with.

That’s where you come in. That trusted advisor who understands the customer’s business, its pain points and financial goals, with the ability to consult about the right types of solutions and capacity needed. The trusted advisor is the one who recommends the right cloud provider to contract with. At the end of the day, the cloud’s just the delivery mechanism; the solution provider is the expert to the customer.

Learning how to sell services and provide business process consulting takes time and skill. If there’s one place to invest next year around the shift to the cloud, it’s in ramping your organization to think and act like a business consultant.