Is computing in the cloud really less expensive than adding to your data center? Should you use a business service, or compute on demand? How do you measure the goodness of a service?

These are questions that the Service Measurement Index, unveiled in mid-May from Carnegie Mellon University-Silicon Valley, hopes to answer. The SMI is the initiative to address the need for industry-wide, globally accepted measures for calculating the benefits and risks of cloud-based services, according to Jeff Perdue, cofounder of the service management graduate program at C-M Silicon Valley.

The SMI takes into account six key performance indicators in the areas of Agility, Capability, Cost, Quality, Risk and Security. Organizations would measure the cloud-based services they’ve created, or check the ratings of a service they wish to consume and then tailor it to their tastes.

“You need to consider the needs of your installed base,” Perdue said. “Sometimes, an organization will take lower quality for better agility, or perhaps they don’t care about agility, but cost is key. That will allow people to adjust the scores in a weighted fashion.”

The SMI is mostly geared to services available in the cloud, such as e-mail and hosted services, Perdue explained. “It’s things where mature competition is going on,” he said. “People want to know, ‘Should we go outside, or do it ourselves?’ ”

The impetus for the SMI began at CA Technologies, formerly Computer Associates. “We knew this was a big initiative that could not be run by CA, but would do better in the community at large,” said Laura McCluer, vice president of cloud computing at CA Technologies, which is also behind the Cloud Commons effort.

She described Cloud Commons as a portal of enterprise cloud information—a “trip adviser for the cloud,” she said. “Yes, the hotel says it’s four-star rated, but what do people who’ve stayed there think?” Cloud Commons, she said, is a place where cloud consumers and providers can come together to air their concerns and talk about what they’ve found.

McCluer said the SMI initiative will come up with a standard set of APIs for collecting monitoring data that ultimately will allow people in the long term to do their own benchmarking. For now, Perdue said the SMI has partnered with a testing service on an experimental basis to be able to work up some SMI scores.

McCluer explained that “organizations already have invested in so many of these kinds of monitoring tools. [SMI will define] how to aggregate the output from those tools” into an SMI area. For instance, there will be a definition for importing service desk feeds and SLA data into “quality,” or networking monitoring results into “agility.” “We hope that in three to five years, we’ll hear people talking about their SMI scores,” she said.

Consumers want this, Perdue said. The big question is, will Amazon and Google (two of the leading cloud providers) want this? “Or,” Perdue wondered, “do they just want their marketing message to stand on its own?”