A Brief History of Cloud

Read our brief history of Cloud and learn how the cloud came to be what it is today, detailing the most important developments and technology breakthroughs throughout its 60-year history.

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The title refers to the digital cloud and its many formations, an inescapable technology that hangs over us all like a… well, like a cloud. But what does it actually mean? And where does the term originate? 

If you’d have asked Jack the IT manager, 5 years ago what the cloud was, he would have explained that it was a term in which involved using a service that was hosted at an alternate location from where his company was based.

Ideally, it would be hosted in many different locations so that if there was a problem, there would also be a backup.

Unfortunately for Jack though, since advertisers got their hands on the cloud, the definition has been warped and you’ll currently find him sidestepping the question like a well-schooled politician.

“Services like web hosting and online voice applications have been recently repackaged as cloud services,” says communications executive Dominic Cross: “however the term is now a cause of confusion for consumers and IT professionals alike, as it has become so hard to know what somebody is talking about when they mention the cloud”.

The term cloud remains a constant, but the meaning is multiple. Maybe it’s just another homonym (look it up). Let’s find out.

To the DeLorean!

The Big Bang (1950s)

Let’s go back, way back. Kids are outside playing with sharp metal spirals, Cliff Richard’s music is sweeping the nation and the summers are lasting so long that people are barbecuing their Christmas dinners.

We are, of course, referring to the Fifties: the decade of rising expectations. But why metaphorically time travel here? Well, as Dr Carl Sagan once aptly said, “You have to know the past to understand the present”. He also said that “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. Well readers, if the cloud is our apple pie, then the Fifties is our universe.

It’s true, the underlying concept of cloud computing began when computers were so big that they doubled as wallpaper.

Large mainframe terminals that had no internal processing powers of their own (known as dumb terminals) were connected to master computers, which allowed both the computer and the dumb terminal to run concurrently, sharing the workload and saving time.

This “time-sharing” process was cleverly referred to as “time-sharing”. By using multiple terminals, you could get a lot more work done and make some serious savings in the process, and just so we are clear, by work, we mean calculations. These expensive mainframes were basically just oversized calculators.

Despite the primitive nature of the technology, the concept of using an outside source to benefit the master was now in place. This meant one thing: the universe had formed and it was time to start baking.

TR0N: The Beginning (1970s)

We can only assume that if movie executives ever made a prequel to Tron, that they would encapsulate a “zero” in the title as to make it clear that it was an origin story.

Using the Dr Sagan theory of past and present, we are able to exclusively reveal the film’s setting: Virtual Machine Ware (VMware). Based on the first two films in the franchise, we can also statistically predict that this will be a terrible movie.

But let’s circle back, what is VMware and how does it fit into our journey to the cloud (not that cloud, meteorologists).

Around 1970, the concept of a virtual machine (VM) was developed. By making use of virtualisation software, known as VMware, it became possible to utilise one or more operating systems simultaneously in a virtual environment. 

In laymen’s terms, this simply means that you could create a virtual computer, using a physical computer’s hardware and infrastructure. A fully functional computer, inside a computer. Think Inception, but with Commodores and Ataris, instead of Leonardo DiCaprio and dreams.

Virtual machines were the next step in the evolution of cloud technology, it took the basic premise founded in the Fifties and removed the need for the dumb terminal, consigning it to exist in virtual space instead.

Modern history (1990s)

To complete our apple pie, we need to zoom forward to a time of questionable music and tasteless fashion (sometimes combined). In the nineties, computers had shrunk by a factor of 50 and were already ruining employees vision up and down the country. After the emergence of VMware, the next logical step was for the communications companies to get a piece of the pie. They did so by creating the concept of a Virtual Private Network connection, also known as a VPN.

The emergence of VPN changed everything. Historically, communication providers offered dedicated point-to-point connections, but by using a VPN, they were able to provide virtual networks that had the same quality as their dedicated counterparts, but at a much-reduced cost. Instead of physically building additional infrastructure, communication companies could use the VPN to provide users with shared access to physical infrastructure, perhaps located in a data centre.

Jargon free, telecommunications companies got on the bandwagon and looked at virtualising telephone lines by offering them over Internet connections, without using existing legacy infrastructure, using the cloud to provide the same functionality as their local telephone exchange. 

Jargon free for real this time, this meant that they had developed the technology to make calls over the Internet.

This technology grew until many different companies could offer several different virtualised services, like web hosting, for example, over the Internet.

These services are referred to as cloud services, cloud computing or cloud solutions, thus completing our knowledge quest to know what the cloud is.

The “other” cloud

So where is the cause of confusion and why are some still perplexed when the cloud is mentioned? Well, the answer is simple. The cloud is, in fact, a homonym. 

In case you didn’t look it up, a homonym is as a word that is spelled the same, but has multiple meanings: for example, you have a dog that goes “bark” and you have a tree that is made of “bark”. The same word, different meanings, and this is where people may be confused when cloud, cloud services, or cloud computing is mentioned.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, networking experts would use a cloud symbol to represent the Internet in their flow diagrams or network schematics. The origin is unknown, but what is known is that it became hugely popular until eventually it was the go-to word to symbolise the Internet. The cloud has simply become a metaphor for the Internet.

So, there you have it, the cloud explained. Now, if somebody asks you what the cloud is, you can smugly advise them that it is a homonym and let them nod and agree as they pretend to know what you’re talking about. 

Join us next week, as we talk about how a user can utilise multiple tablets for business use (not those tablets, pharmacists).

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