The most recent in a long string of technology fashion trends, "the cloud" is hot. Like its hot technology fashion predecessors, it mostly consists of old ideas with a little spicy sauce on top and fresh packaging. If you mindlessly follow the fashion and just "go to the cloud," you are likely to end up in the same unhappy place where most mindless followers of fashion trends end up. What is "the cloud?" Simple. Clouds are belated enterprise IT implementations of the consumer internet.
What is the Cloud?
Is the "cloud" a new development? Well, it is a new name...
I first encountered the cloud more than 40 years ago. Before that fateful meeting, my only experience with computers had been up close and personal. You had to get in the room, push buttons, flick switches, feed card decks or punched paper tape, listen to whirring sounds and watch blinking lights. Like with this computer:
But The Cloud! Ahhh, the Cloud...I remember it vividly.
Of course, things were a bit different then. We only had "fat clients," as in "takes two guys to lug it" fat. The principle was identical, however: I was in one place, with a "fat client" like this:
...and in another place was a computer like this:
...and everything worked.
Remember the importance of labelling, however: what we did 40 years ago wasn't "cloud computing," which hadn't been "invented" yet -- it was merely "telecommunications."
Creating the Modern Cloud
Between then and now, lots of iterations of Moore's Law have come and gone. All the hardware has gotten smaller, cheaper and faster, while the software has gotten larger, more expensive and slower -- but, fortunately for all of us, the rate of hardware evolution is greater than the rate of software devolution, giving the impression of net progress.
Where this leaves us, 40 years later, is faster remote computers talking with lighter remote clients over incredibly faster networks, all at lower cost. Sprinkle with a little extra software and drizzle with some marketing hoo-haw, and -- kazaam! -- you've got today's hottest technology fashion trend, Cloud Computing.
Clouds aren't always friendly
When we think of clouds, we're likely to think of this kind of cloud:
friendly, fluffy shapes floating in an otherwise sunny sky. When people think about cloud computing, this is the kind of cloud they seem to have in mind. But as we know, there are other kinds of clouds. There are dark, oppressive clouds that make everyone depressed. And there are really mean clouds, that wreck things horribly, creating the situations for which "disaster recovery plans" are made. Is this just a metaphor? Of course not. But just like financial fraud, the big, juicy examples are usually hushed up in order to protect the guilty.
OK, so What is "the Cloud"
There is a little-discussed trend that is deeply embarassing to IT professionals: there is a wide and growing gap between the use of computing technology in the consumer world and in the corporate, data center world. When the average user of corporate data systems is home, he works in a very advanced computing environment. His local machines and devices are amazingly capable and pretty easy to use. When connected to the internet, he can access a nearly limitless world of cloud computing resources -- which are themselves largely run out of data centers that are remote from the people who set up and administer the software in them, and which contain an ever-evolving mix of dedicated and shared resources and services. The consumer internet has been based on a cloud computing model for a long time.
The corporate world is a whole different thing. The corporate world has been consumed with consolidating their diverse data centers. They are finally beginning to confront the extreme flexibility and ease of use that consumers enjoy every day, and are finding it increasingly difficult to explain why the computing they run with such high capital and operating costs are so cumbersome, error-prone and inflexible.
In this context, there is no way that anyone associated with corporate computing is ever going to plainly admit that what they are basically doing is trying to catch up with the consumer internet. So they must be doing something else. Oh, yeah -- they're evolving to the latest, smartest trend in corporate computing, adopting the latest technologies and being really leading-edge: they're "moving to the cloud," but of course in a "smart" way, with large doses of "private cloud" technology along the way.
What's a "private cloud?" A corporate data center with a fancier name.
What's a corporation "moving to the cloud?" A corporate IT group trying to play catch-up with the consumer internet, and desperately trying to make it look like something else.
What's new about "cloud computing?" Very little; mostly naming and marketing fluff.
Is anything real happening when a corporation "moves to the cloud?" Sometimes yes! Sometimes, they really are copying a couple proven techniques of the consumer internet, slowly and at great cost and trouble, but nonetheless creeping towards a 21st century computing model.