A brief history of cloud computing

Back when cloud computing was in its infancy, IT veterans often grumbled something along the lines of: “Cloud computing isn’t new, we had it many years ago.” They were referring to the concept of computer bureaux, which were popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

Before you imagine wood-panelled computers, the reality of a computer bureau was rather more mundane. This was back in the day when computers were huge mainframes, so if you wanted to compute something then you needed to book in your time (and pay for it).

It’s true that, at first sight, there are similarities between the concept of a computer bureau and the way that cloud works. They’re both based on remote access to a computing facility, and they’re both charged on usage.

But that’s superficial. It’s like saying a Fiat Punto is akin to a Lamborghini because they’re both powered by petrol and will travel from A to B. There are many more layers to consider, and doing so will make it obvious why cloud is now so pervasive.

Cloudy beginnings

The first thing to state is that the cloud and the internet are closely entwined. After all, the concept of a network of interconnected computers is fundamental to both. But the network on its own isn’t enough. What has changed is the speed of access, with enterprises operating at gigabit speeds. The days of the computer bureau with its low-speed modems are long gone.

Then there’s the emergence of open source as meaningful software. The vast majority of cloud data centres are run on Linux; according to one report, 90% of them. Proprietary operating systems, as used on mainframes, would have drastically reduced the technology’s growth.

Then there’s the emergence of virtualisation as a concept. VMware’s arrival as a major player – and the widespread use of virtual machines – provided a basis for the way that cloud operating systems were constructed.

Finally, there’s software-as-a-service. Today, SaaS is seen as just another strand in the cloud portfolio: head back 20 years and vendors like Success Factors and Salesforce were reinventing the way that applications were delivered. People paid for what they consumed, freeing them from excessive licensing costs.

Early wisps of cloud

All of these developments were a massive departure from the way that the computing had been carried out previously. However, in one respect, the industry veterans were not wrong: while cloud computing was definitely the newest game in town, it had a long pedigree.

The concept of cloud computing (although not called cloud computing) was formulated by the US computer scientist Joseph Licklider when he was working on the ARPANET, the forerunner of the internet. He memorably addressed a 1963 memo to colleagues as “Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network”.

Despite Licklider’s predictions, cloud computing itself took a long time to emerge. We have to wait until the summer of 1996 for the first use of the phrase itself. It appeared within a Compaq business plan, although it’s not clear who actually coined the phrase. However, the use of cloud in this instance was little more than an example of how the internet could be deployed.

Business movers

By the late 1990s, companies were starting to see the possibilities of the new technology. We began to use phrases such as “grid computing”, where compute power is derived from a number of computers attached in a grid format.

The other phrase that made its way into corporate consciousness was “utility computing”. Here, various major IT vendors envisaged compute services being sold on a pay-per-use basis, in the same way that utility services are charged. HP and IBM both pushed the concept hard, yet it never really took off.

All that was to change. And, as is so often the case, it almost happened by accident.

Amazon, by then firmly established as an online vendor, was finding it hard to support its range of vendors. It discovered that the best way to improve services was to run its own company-wide platform. This offered storage and compute power on tap, boosting the efficiency of Amazon’s ecommerce operations.

In time, Amazon realised that this achievement didn’t have to be limited to its own customers: it could establish a lucrative business on the back of its developments. Amazon’s cloud business (AWS, standing for Amazon Web Services) has become an important part of the corporate revenues, currently accounting for 14% of total turnover. A healthy amount in a multi-billion dollar enterprise. In fact, AWS is the biggest revenue earner within the company.

Cloud lift-off

It didn’t take long for other vendors to realise the possibilities. Microsoft, which had been slow to recognise the importance of open-source software, was quick to realise the possibilities of cloud. It helped that it had launched its own version of virtualisation, a product called Hyper-V, that could compete with VMware. It soon established an SaaS version of its Office suite, called Office 365. Now rechristened as Microsoft 365, it’s a huge money spinner for the company.

Initially, all this activity left traditional IT hardware vendors lagging behind. But it didn’t take long for the likes of IBM and HP to launch their own spin on cloud services. Their first offerings were more akin to private cloud than the public version touted by Amazon and subsequently by Microsoft.

Open/closed controversy

With cloud computing maturing, the battleground grew hotter. A number of vendors drew up a document called the Open Cloud Manifesto, but “open” was being used loosely in this case: Amazon, Salesforce and Microsoft were pointedly excluded from the list of supporters. Microsoft was particularly vocal in its criticism of what it saw as an attempt to stifle the market at such an early stage.

Other companies were a little late to the party. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was an early critic of the concept, ranting about vaporware, but when the tides (winds?) turned he repositioned Oracle as a cloud company.

These days, any companies who had doubts about the cloud are all converts. Oracle isn’t the only company that changed its stance: IBM and HP also embraced the idea of cloud computing, as my explainer on HP GreenLake explains. And pretty much every enterprise makes use of some form of cloud.

If he were alive today, Joseph Licklider would surely look on with some satisfaction at seeing his predictions come true in such a fashion.

Maxwell Cooter
Maxwell Cooter

Although Max trained to be a programmer, he quickly found his vocation in journalism. He was the founder editor of Cloud Pro, the UK's first dedicated cloud publication and has written for dozens of titles, including The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. At TechFinitive he writes about cloud computing and data.