While multifamily technology executives continue to struggle with the ambiguity in semantics when it comes to cloud computing, even die-hard holdouts are beginning to investigate the cost benefits of outsourcing primary IT functions to “the cloud.”

Speakers at the 2010 NMHC Technology Conference noted that services currently being marketed as cloud computing might include Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), managed services, co-located data centers, and hosting services, as well as truly untethered, multi-tenant cloud applications.

“Only you can evaluate your environment and determine the types of cloud services that will provide cost savings, flexibility, scalability, or some combination of those to your enterprise,” said Scott McCurdy, vice president of information technology for Dallas-based Pinnacle, an American Management Services Co.

McCurdy noted his firm’s decision to enter into a cloud computing agreement with Carrollton, Texas-based RealPage early this year and said the process of relocating its systems to the RealPage data center is almost complete. “We should be fully in the cloud by the end of February,” he said.

Firms that have made strategic investments in systems and hardware over the past decade continue to be leery of cloud computing options as they await the full ROI on their current data platforms. Still, systems maturities over the next several years will present opportunities for clouding application that could present a compelling value proposition to firms that traditionally handle most system hosting and development functions in house. “Timing is everything when it comes to the cloud,” said Irvine, Calif.-based Western National Group vice president of information technology Ken Hodges. “We’re halfway through a big [IT] spend and don’t see a benefit moving everything to a cloud option right now.”

Hodges said Western National is taking a hard look at Postini and eemail archiving as well as getting rid of its co-location and moving disaster recovery to a cloud computing platform, although other than Postini he did not identify any specific vendors the firm is evaluating.

“We’re really trying to determine what the next generation applications are for multifamily and what are the [cloud versus self-hosting] options for those,” said Denver-based Simpson Housing vice president and chief information officer Mike Casper, who likewise noted that the cost/benefit analysis doesn't currently pencil out for Simpson to go with a full cloud-computing platform. “We still have costs sunk into our data centers and wouldn’t currently realize a benefit from cloud.”

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Yardi Systems moved further into the cloud computing arena just prior to the NMHC event, unveiling its trademarked Cloud Services, a branding of the software firm's cloud offerings, which include hosting services, 24-hour client support, managed application updates, network security, and hardware and infrastructure in order to allow its clients to focus on principal business over IT admin. Yardi Cloud Services clients are hosted across 3,000 servers in nine data centers, including a dedicated business continuity and disaster recovery center in Phoenix. Data centers are PCI-audited and SAS 70 Type II-certified.

“We are excited that the high standards our Yardi Cloud Services team sets for itself are paying off so consistently for our clients,” said Yardi vice president of IT Scott Wiener in an announcement. “In addition to our investment and property management systems, our clients can also rely on us to manage hundreds of interface feeds to banks and third-party companies as well.”

The speakers also noted the cost savings and economies of scale upshot for cloud providers such as Yardi and RealPage, who can move closer to single-code source software instead of supporting several different versions of its software and systems. While some attendees questioned the ability to deal with so-called “mystery release” non-announced updates to that code, panelists played down the impact to apartment firms who elect to embrace cloud computing.

“Change management is difficult from a baseline,” Caspar said. “We would expect communication and processes to accompany updates. At the end of the day, it could happen. But it could happen internally as well.”

Hodges notes that a “private cloud” option might be more intriguing to Western National as the firm evolves toward the cloud computing arena. Indeed, there could be opportunities to develop private, virtual data centers that allow firms to move software providers in and out of enterprise clouds instead of the other way around. “The right strategy for me isn’t to determine best-in-class SaaS,” Hodges says. “We’re much more interested in platform and infrastructure cloud opportunities. When will it happen? I don’t know, but I can’t wait.”