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/blog What is cloud computing?

by ChrisLawless

What do we mean by ‘cloud’ anyway? Defining cloud computing in today’s world

Clouds are everywhere. You could even say that clouds are big these days! The cloud topic even comes up in all sorts of unexpected places. I was at my son’s basketball game this past weekend and during the halftime break, another parent asked me if they could ask me a question.

 “You are a computer guy, right?”

At this point, I was expecting something along the lines of:  how her computer was not working properly and how could I help with that   I was used to these sort of requests from my family and friends knowing that I was a computer guy’. 

“I wanted to ask you a question about cloud computing”.  I immediately start smiling.  Now we were talking.  She had my full attention.

She continued, “I have a dumb question:  Can you explain what the cloud really means?”

“I have a dumb question:  Can you explain what the cloud really means?”

 I told her that I didn’t think it was a dumb question at all and then proceeded to talk the rest of halftime.  In fact, I think that the press and many of us in the industry do a bit of disservice to people.  We mention ‘cloud’, but we could be talking about 10 different things.  Industry insiders focus on the area of the ‘cloud’ that they work with but may mean very different things. Oftentimes while talking to each other we sometimes invoke the word ‘cloud’ without really checking if the other person knows what ‘cloud’ we are talking about.

Cloud the Beginning

I started off by explaining to her one of my favorite sayings; “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

Forty-plus years ago when people used computers, they often sat in front of a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube). These were ‘dumb terminals’, they just displayed characters, often in a ‘green screen’ that allowed you to interact with a computer. No processing was done on the terminal in front of you.  Commands were typed in the terminal, sent to a computer that was housed elsewhere, some processing was done and then the results were sent back to the terminal and displayed.  Depending on the program this may have even taken a bit of time.  Many people working on those terminals had no idea where the computer was even located. The computer may have been located on-premise in the basement, across town in a local data center or hundreds of miles away in a shared site from a computer vendor.  In fact, a large majority used to think that the terminal itself was ‘the computer’.

In the 1980s and 1990s, personal computers started to become more popular and those computers actually had processing power.  They weren’t just screened displays with a keyboard, the computers that they were attached to could do all sorts of processing.  If you combined these personal computers with powerful back-end computers via the internet you had the classic ‘client – server’ model of computing.  Some computing was done on the remote server and other processing was done on the local computer. This model made many companies happy as they could do more and more processing on local computers that were often cheaper than the expensive mainframes that formed the back-end.

Cloud Computing in this Century

 In the 2000s and beyond, when the internet explosion started, people starting using browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer.  Those browsers were windows into computers elsewhere.  As things evolved, computers became more powerful and cloud became more prevalent, more operations could be done in those browsers.  Now whole industries are done in the browsers.

The cloud while new…. is old news.

And if you think of certain software programs, laptops in some regards can be thought of as ‘dumb terminals’.  People enter commands in the browser, those commands are sent off (via the internet) and the work is done on a remote computer and information is returned and displayed in the browser.  The more things change the more they stay the same.  You can say that the old days of computing are back again.  The browser makes the laptop.. the dumb terminal.  The cloud while new…. is old news.

I often like to joke that the cloud is ‘just a computer that is stored somewhere else’.  The cloud is not really a new idea.  Take Yahoo! email.  It has been around for quite some time.  You didn’t download anything. You went to a browser and read your email there.  That email service was housing on a computer elsewhere.  Users of Yahoo! email never wondered if those computers were ‘cloud computing’ or not, they used wanted access to their email from many different computers.  When Gmail came out it used the exact same model, the email service was hosted on remote computers.  People didn’t think of it as cloud they just thought that their emails were ‘hosted’.

When people talk about ‘the cloud’ being new it is often ignoring all of the times that the cloud has already been with us all along.

When people talk about ‘the cloud’ being new it is often ignoring all of the times that the cloud has already been with us all along.

Having said that, there are some huge changes that have happened over the past decade that have lead to big advances in the cloud world.  These advances have led to a whole new industry, thousands of new companies and a huge opportunity for all sorts of organizations to dramatically change the way that the operate their businesses.  Microsoft’s Azure, Amazon’s AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Oracle Cloud are just a few of the larger companies that have major cloud offerings.  In part two of this blog, I go into a bit more detail about the different types of cloud offerings and how they are helping transform businesses.  

What does Cloud mean to you?  Comment below and let us know what cloud means to you! We may end up doing a follow-up based on the responses.


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