Without PCs, HP must capitalize on the cloud

If HP (s hpq) does indeed sell off its PC business, it might have to nail its foray into cloud computing to avoid becoming a punchline decades down the road. Without that extra $30-million-plus in revenue, and $10 billion lighter in the wallet after buying Autonomy, something has to pick up the slack.

Buying Autonomy gives HP an interesting set of capabilities around what Autonomy calls “meaning-based search,” but it doesn’t suddenly put HP on par with Oracle (s orcl) and IBM (s ibm) in terms of being an enterprise software vendor. Gavin Clarke at The Register lays out the case for why it doesn’t. Among his key points are (1) that enterprise search isn’t as lucrative and sticky as ERP or CRM software; (2) that Autonomy only earned $256 million in its most-recent quarter, compared with $9.59 billion for HP’s PC business; and (3) that IBM already has an established business enterprise search business (as does, I might add, Google (s goog)).

On top of Autonomy’s core capabilities, its technology that gives context to queries could potentially make a nice addition to HP’s big data portfolio, which presently consists only of Vertica only. IBM, EMC and even Leo Apotheker’s previous company SAP are making big investments in advanced analytics and big data processing because there’s a lot of money to be made in helping businesses make sense of their data. One health care startup, Apixio, already is doing something similar to what Autonomy does by adding context to medical-record searches. Presently, HP is far behind its peers working hard on Hadoop, predictive analytics, machine learning and other advanced capabilities, but Autonomy could provide a stepping stone to get there if HP is willing to do the work to build from it.

But HP has something that neither Oracle, IBM nor, really, any other large non-Microsoft (s msft) software have: a complete plan for cloud computing. Like IBM and Oracle, HP has a strong enterprise cloud business in place, complete with converged infrastructure options that package cloud software with high-end hardware configurations. And like IBM, HP has a set of outsourced services that can fall under the cloud umbrella for the purposes of serving large enterprises.

Where HP sets itself apart, though, is with what’s on its roadmap. The company is planning a whole collection of developer-focused cloud services — a la Amazon Web Services (s amzn) — that, it’s rumored, will officially emerge at VMworld later this month. If AWS has proven anything, it’s that there’s big business in public, commodity cloud computing if done right and if it comes from a trusted provider, which HP no doubt would be.

HP’s also a Microsoft Windows Azure Appliance partner, which hints at the possibility of it reselling the Microsoft cloud platform either as a service or as software preloaded on specialized hardware. Already other Microsoft partners Dell (s dell) and Fujitsu have announced or actually rolled out their own Windows Azure services.

However, HP has been taking its lumps from analysts, investors, the press and just about everyone else since announcing its plans to buy Autonomy while disposing of webOS and its huge PC business. It has to hit a home run in the cloud to avoid falling into an absolute tailspin. Leo Apotheker made a big to-do about its grand cloud plans earlier this year, so unveiling an uninspired set of IaaS, PaaS and cloud-storage services will just add more fuel to the anti-HP fire.

Of course, he also highlighted the importance of webOS in the same speech, so who knows how confident anyone should be about HP’s cloud strategy.