Deep Into Cloud: Historical Background

Cloud Capable Devices

What is cloud computing? Well folks, that’s not an easy question to answer. I explored various definitions of the cloud, along with David Linthicum’s un-compelling argument that cloud definitions don’t matter, previously in this blog. That report was primarily a refutation of the idea that defining and describing and standardizing the cloud (as is the role of third-party standardization and accreditation bodies) wasn’t worthwhile. Today I want to look at the meaning of the cloud again, then get beyond that into discussion of its history.

First, though, let’s look at how the cloud is popularly conceived. In the Linthicum article, we covered three general definitions, from popular explanation sites (TechTarget, Wikipedia) and the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Today, we instead look at the competitive marketplace, the way that the cloud is framed by major-name public cloud providers Amazon and IBM – companies that may be expensive but whose projected image of the cloud is important simply based on the size of the soapbox.

Definitions From Two Big Names

Cloud definition #1 – Amazon Web Services

“On-demand delivery of IT resources and applications via the Internet with pay-as-you-go pricing.”


I’m not so sure that’s what the cloud is. What Amazon is describing is what the cloud enables, the business benefit of the technology. That makes sense, because AWS has calls-to-action and explanations of features all over its descriptive page. In other words, Amazon is more interested in talking about the cloud in terms of its value for business than in terms of its fundamental attributes (i.e., a distributed virtual environment in which resources are shared throughout a typically large pool of machines).

As a general problem with the opinions of businesses with vested interest in certain technologies. AWS isn’t just explaining the cloud but framing it in a way that best meets its ends. Cloud computing isn’t necessarily on-demand or pay-as-you-go. Those are business conventions, but Amazon wants to equate them to the cloud itself.

Cloud definition #2 – IBM

“An all-inclusive solution in which all computing resources… are provided rapidly to users as demand dictates [with] the ability to be scaled up and down [enabling] IT to be delivered as a service.”


IBM focuses in a similar direction. Again, it just seems to me that not mentioning the network of physical hardware that makes the cloud so powerful is a little weird. Nonetheless, IBM’s definition is a bit more helpful because it references the service model. The service model – all these various technologies presented “as a service” in real time rather than a product that’s in your hand – is an aspect of the cloud that does seem to be fundamental.

Background of Cloud Computing

Sometimes people who disregard the cloud concept think that it is simply another name for client-server, writes Jon Stokes of Ars Technica. Yes, it is a form of client-server relationship, an interaction that involves one provider giving various users the ability to harness its resources.

All right, so in that basic understanding, cloud is the same as any other client-server system – especially when you consider that the client machine in either a cloud or enterprise scenario is generally an individual PC. Stokes remarks that many people don’t consider what is really the critical factor: server side. That’s the side on which this technology has really become extraordinary.

A server can generally give clients access to two categories of resources: compute cycles and storage. You can think of a client-server architecture in terms of which of those two resources is made available.

Let’s look at how client-server models have evolved since the beginning of computing.

The original client-server arrangement was between a terminal and mainframe. Both types of resource – CPU and storage – were costly, so the mainframe gathered each resource, giving access to thin-client terminals. When consumers and businesses started buying computers en masse, both CPUs and storage became inexpensively available to typical business desktops. File servers started to become more commonplace so that colleagues could work with the same file. Since the file server was meant to offer storage to clients, CPU was uninvolved. The cycles necessary to work within the files were isolated to each individual computer.

During the 1980s, organizations started building supercomputers. These featured huge processor arrays that provided CPUs to fat-client PCs. Supercomputers were not commonly used by businesses. Government, particularly military, and higher education departments tied to government interests were the only organizations that had these machines, which were incredibly expensive to run.

Toward the beginning of the 1990s, the Web was growing to a point that computer scientists started wondering about integrating all the computers into large aggregates of CPUs and storage that would far exceed what any one firm would have the budget to construct. That is the basis of the notion of the grid and utility computing. The cloud is a form of utility computing that is technologically advanced to meet the needs of businesses in 2014.

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By Kent Roberts