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The Evolution of Cloud Computing - Then and Now

There is a lot of hype surrounding Cloud Computing, Microsoft's upcoming Cloud OS and current efforts around Live Mesh

With all of the hype surrounding Cloud computing, Microsoft's upcoming Cloud OS and current efforts around Live Mesh, I thought I would take a trip on the WABAC machine to look at where it all started. Back when I was in junior high school, the best type of connectivity that I could hope for were dial-up Bulletin Boards. Yes, I used a 2400 baud modem. No, I am not older than dirt. We used these BBS' to play games, to post on discussion forums, and occasionally, if the BBS owner was wealthy enough, they'd have multiple nodes (for you young whipper snappers, that means multiple phone lines, multiple modems, and a single shared BBS) and we could chat between nodes. I started running my first BBS when I was 13. I had to run it from 7am until 5pm only because my mother wouldn't let me run it on our phone line when she was home ;)

Primitive as they were, these BBS' had many features that one might associate with current Cloud efforts: shared file systems (though, admittedly, they were damn tiny at the time, and U/L D/L was slow as hell and plagued by "line noise"), public shared discussions, even games you could play online (ANSI TradeWars 2002 FTW!!)

Next I finally get access to the Internet. This is before .COMs and the predominant usage of the Internet at the time was by students and the original inhabitants of the Internet and DARPA. BTW, bet you didn't know that the "Web" as we know it know was originally created by CERN? Yeah, all you "CERN's going to blow up the world" wackos shouldn't bite the hand that fed you ;) Throughout high school, my Internet activities consisted of participating in usenet newsgroups (old fart translation: discussion boards), playing MUDs (Genesis is/was the best ever, btw), coding for MUDs, and downloading the latest NASA imagery. That's right, even back THEN you could download from NASA's FTP sites. I also got the best Shareware money never bought from garbo.uwasa.fi , one of the best Shareware repositories ever.  I was still running a BBS out of my house, but at this point I had my own phone line so I could proudly operate a 24/7 BBS.

Side note: The pre-cursors to what all of us thought of as the modern BBS was, of course, HAM radio. Ever wondered why people used to originally identify themselves to BBS' and Internet sites with a "handle"? "Handle" is a HAM radio term. Respec' yer elders.

So finally the Internet is starting to take off. People are loving services like CompuServe and AOL, though none of my friends can figure out why since we get everything we need for free and CS and AOL both at one point charged by the hour. Again, the value proposition that people were getting out of these services were precursors to what people want out of clouds - shared data, central computing, central storage, apps that follow you whereever you go. Granted, none of this worked well at all, but people were finally starting to figure out what they wanted from online services, and knew they weren't getting it.

So now what happens? Windows 95. Please spare me the "Windows suq" vitriol. Think about the impact that Windows 95 had on the average Joe. We all (us geeks, that is) were quite familiar with windowed operating systems - hell, the vast majority of all my work in high school and college was done on various flavors of X11. But, average people didn't run X11 on their home PCs. They did, however, run Windows 95. For the first time, people could have multiple graphical applications open that seamlessly and easily did stuff on "the Internet". Broadband wasn't really there, so we all grew to love hearing the hiss-and-whine of our speedy 56k modems calling up our ISPs.

Somewhere muddled in here around the Windows 95 time-frame is something called Frame Relay. Businesses are setting up these things called Clouds (foreshadowing?!) that allow endpoints to connect to the cloud and perform centralized computing without knowing any details about the endpoints listening on the clouds. FR was HUGE (and who knows, might still be... I haven't written FR code in YEARS) for credit card authorization systems and branch offices to communicate transactions to other branches as well as corporate HQs. FR was really the equivalent of a "Private Mesh/Cloud".

NOW we really start to see a paradigm shift. For the first time in computing history, average non-geek humans are actually doing a large portion of their computer use while connected in some form. Many BBS try to shift to the Internet but become dinosaurs and are left in the wake of "the Web". Once every Tom, Dick, or Harry could make their own home page, BBS' began to fade. Now, people are playing games where they can play against other people using the Internet.

Public perception has shifted so that for most people, "the Web" IS the Internet. This is step 1 toward Cloud computing becoming invitable. Step 2 is present day where people are realizing that the Internet isn't the Web, that the Web is something that is simply sitting on top of it. The Internet to them is this nebulous "thing", a set of computer-related world plumbing that feeds every piece of data to anyone, anywhere. Now people have multiple devices that belong to a single person. They've got a cell phone with more computing power than the computers that I used to run BBS' on in the 90s. They've got a laptop, and they've got a "big" computer at home. They've got a PC they use at work. They also expect that public sources of computing power are available in Internet cafes, public libraries, airports, etc. What they don't have now that they NEED, is a way to carry their digital life seamlessly with them wherever they go. People compensate now with USB drives, shared services like Xdrive and other public storage systems, but that's not good enough, and everyone knows it.

From the very beginning, people have been using computers to connect, share, and collaborate. Scientists needing to collaborate on developments with the original collider built what is now the Web. People dialing into 2400-baud bulletin boards did so to connect with others, collaborate with them, share ideas and thoughts, share files and data, and even play games with them (yes, we knew how to do that back in the days of dinosaurs and cavemen!). When people first got Windows 95 with it's PPP and TCP/IP support making the development of Internet-capable applications easier than ever before, the Internet was handed to them on a silver platter. They used it to connect to others, share with others, collaborate, and play. They used it to learn, to teach, and to grow. Now everyone knows what the Internet is, everyone has it, and everyone has so many endpoints that plug into it and those end points do not talk to each other seamlessly.

This is what the Cloud (or a Cloud OS, or a Cloud environment, whatever you want to call it) should be. People should be able to connect with others, share with others, collaborate with others, share data with other devices, and generally have their digital life centered around THEM and not a single hard drive.

So, what does all of this history tell us?

More Stories By Kevin Hoffman

Kevin Hoffman, editor-in-chief of SYS-CON's iPhone Developer's Journal, has been programming since he was 10 and has written everything from DOS shareware to n-tier, enterprise web applications in VB, C++, Delphi, and C. Hoffman is coauthor of Professional .NET Framework (Wrox Press) and co-author with Robert Foster of Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Development Unleashed. He authors The .NET Addict's Blog at .NET Developer's Journal.

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