What is “The Cloud?”

There has been quite a bit of advertising lately about “the cloud”. You will hear phrases like…“to the cloud” or “moving applications into the cloud” or “moving everything into the cloud” Most of the advertising does not bother to explain what this means; they just say it in such a way as to make it sound exciting. This type of advertising is designed to create “buzz,” which means that the company creating the advertising simply wants to get people talking about the idea. You can see this in the Microsoft ads that say “to the cloud.” They keep showing different situations and then some lady says, “To the cloud.” The worst one has her saying “Windows gives me the family that nature never could…” Another horrible ad that mocks the father, but you are left thinking, you don’t quite know what they are talking about, but you feel like you should know. This lady is going to fix her whole family with this product – what the heck is it?

So what is The Cloud?

The simplest answer is that the cloud is the internet. It refers to the idea of accessing applications, data and services from one location, across the internet to another. That is all it means. The history of the word is also quite simple. As you can see in the example below, when network designers are documenting computer systems graphically, they represent the mass of computers and telecommunications networks of the internet simply as a cloud. This meant that the data would travel on the internet from one location to another. As the use of this idea grew, someone coined the phrase “the cloud”. The phrase is also used to refer to the resources and services themselves that are accessed via the internet. You will hear about “cloud drives” which refer to the disk drives that reside in some company’s data center. You access them remotely via the internet. You may also hear about “cloud applications” such as SalesForce.com, which is simply a CRM package that runs in a datacenter which you access from your Internet Browser. The internet or “the cloud” provides the connection.

Where did The Cloud come from?

This concept is not actually new at all. It has been around since the beginning of the computer industry. In fact, the industry started out this way. It was very common in the 1960s and 70s to have many companies sharing the resources of one mainframe computer. The clients would access one large computer using slow modems and character based terminals. This was done to save money and fully utilize the power of these expensive machines. What is the Cloud Large companies could utilize all the resources of a computer, but smaller ones could not afford to have expensive computing resources idle. However, they still needed the efficiencies it could deliver to their business. Eventually minicomputers were invented and midsized companies could purchase their own computers and eliminate the cost and inconvenience of the slow communications lines. They also found that they could get programs done faster and for less money if they brought this smaller computer in house. When the PC was invented in the late 1970s, the power of computers finally came to small businesses and the cost of software creation could be spread out over the entire small business community. This allowed small businesses to start to benefit from all the efficiencies that computers could deliver. In the beginning, the PC was used as a standalone device that maybe one or two people in the company could use. With the advent of local area networking, the PCs could be tied together to form a company wide network with shared data files and databases. This gave small businesses all the power of the mini and mainframe computers that previously only larger enterprises could use. I remember being in a small meeting room at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985 hearing Bill Joy, the president of Sun Microsystems tell us that “the network is the computer.” What he meant was the networking was going to enable us to use the resources of all of the computers at the same time. Users on PCs could tap into each other’s resources and also to data on servers and other devices throughout the network. At first we only used local networks, but I am sure that Bill Joy could see the time when the telecommunications network would become so fast as to allow this to be done worldwide. With Internet access speeds now exceeding the speeds that we used for local networks back then, this is what we have today, and it is called Cloud Computing.