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As the cloud looms larger over the IT channel, some solution providers may rightfully wonder what exactly is the big deal. After all, many of you for years have been offering hosted software applications to customers that essentially are cloud services under a different name.

And as such, you already know the benefits of cloud computing for your customers: No — or low — upfront capital investments, utility-based payment structures, scalability and flexibility. For you, the primary benefits of cloud computing are ongoing revenue streams, entrenchment in the customer’s business and flexibility to adjust services as customer needs dictate.

So if you have been offering hosted Exchange or a data backup and recovery service for some time, you could be excused for shrugging off all the talk about the cloud as just another round of hype in the IT industry. Or could you?

Having a SAAS offering or two, while it may have prepared you for the cloud era, will not be enough. Looking ahead, customers will want more and more of their IT infrastructures to be cloud-based, and if all you offer is hosted email, you may find yourself losing some clients.

With virtualization, private clouds and public cloud-based services gaining traction by the day, solution providers really don’t have an excuse for sticking only with what they know. The IT channel has a rich history of adaptation and innovation, and cloud computing is another important chapter in this story. Skipping it could well prove fatal to your business.

End users are being bombarded with advertising from big brands, such as Verizon and Google, about their cloud offerings. And as the assault continues, more and more clients will become attuned to the cloud and want more services.

Fortunately for solution providers, there are plenty of options for you to build a well-rounded palette of cloud services. Let’s say you already offer Hosted Exchange, what can you add to complement the services? It would make sense to investigate other Microsoft offerings such as hosted server, database and desktop services to build out your cloud-based menu.

Of course, you need not limit yourself to Microsoft, Cisco or Dell. Nor should you, and in fact, solution providers ought to always approach the big brands with a certain amount of suspicion. Even despite Microsoft’s stellar channel track record, the vendor has allowed some confusion among partners about what their role is in Microsoft’s cloud-based services, such as Azure and BPOS. Microsoft’s cloud strategy is a matter for another column, however.

And as Cisco demonstrated recently, not all big-vendor cloud initiatives are a sure thing. The vendor tossed its hosted email offering after determining that customers “view their email as a mature and commoditized tool.” Cisco indicated it is instead focusing on “collaboration tools such as social software and video.”

Cisco’s hosted email demise notwithstanding, service options for solution providers currently are nearly limitless. Right now is the time to exercise due diligence to find out what is out there, and what fits with your strategy. A host of smaller vendors with attractive cloud offerings are out there chomping at the bit to sign partners to get their technology into the market.

Opportunities aren’t limited to software applications. Solution providers also ought to be looking at hosted infrastructure and platform-as-a-service offerings, as well as private cloud solutions that use virtualization and public cloud-like technology to bring the benefits of a cloud environment within network walls.

A lot of vendors also offer virtual helpdesk services to complement their cloud offerings, which means you can hand over that function to vendor partners and focus on growing the business.

So, yes, when it comes to the cloud, there is plenty of hype. But that doesn’t mean solution providers should simply shrug it off and continue with business as usual. The cloud is transformative, and as such, it requires solution providers to once again adapt to a major industry shift.

Pedro Pereira is a columnist for Channel Insider and a freelance writer. He can be reached at