Cloud Computing: New Name, Same Old Tech

The other day, Tom’s Hardware’s Tuan Nguyen sent me a link to this video on YouTube, which shows Larry Ellison ridiculing cloud computing.

He doesn’t poke fun at the idea itself, but at the buzzword and, quite obviously, he  criticizes those who claim to have invented cloud computing just recently.  Sure, he has a point, there is a pretty substantial marketing cloud that is surrounding cloud computing. But I can’t help but think that Ellison was still frustrated that no one wanted to buy his NC. There is more to cloud computing than most of us know today.

Ellison is known to be outspoken. We just witnessed this again in the HP-Hurd case where he certainly did not hold back any thoughts. He was quite vocal about cloud computing as well. It is a video that is worth watching, but keep in mind that the video was taken in 2009 and we are now in 2010. I would argue that our perception of cloud computing has changed dramatically since last year, we are much more educated about it than we were last year and I would almost bet that Ellison would not say everything in the same way as he said it in this video.

However, even in 2009, there was so much wrong with his statements. He claims cloud computing is not just the future – it is the present and it has been the past. Essentially, to Ellison, cloud computing represents a bunch of connected computers or, in short, the Internet.

Really? A quick look to Wikipedia, which has an excellent explanation of cloud computing, reveals that Ellison’s statements were false and if you found yourself laughing with the audience, then it just shows that we still do not know exactly what the meaning, implications and benefits of cloud computing are. Or, we just laugh, because Ellison can make the phone book sound funny. But I believe that he sits on his own Silicon Valley billionaire cloud and his perspective excludes the rest of us.

What is Cloud Computing?

The idea of cloud computing isn’t new. Depending on your preference, you can trace the origins back to J.C.R Licklider, one of the pioneers of the ARPANET, who described his visions of an “intergalactic computer network” in 1969 and computer scientist Jon McCarthy who said in about the same timeframe that "computation may someday be organized as a public utility". In fact, Larry Ellison is also often mentioned among those who envisioned cloud computing: Oracle pitched the NC, a thin client computer that essentially represented an Internet-connected device with virtually no local storage capabilities, in 1996. It was ready to ship in 1999, but, unfortunately, no one wanted the NC back then and it seems that the NC was invented nearly 20 years too early.

As we understand cloud computing today, it is not just the Internet and a bunch of connected devices. In its basic concept, cloud computing implies sharing computing resources such as processor time, storage and services that are acquired in the same way we use utilities such as gas and electric. It’s just there when you need it and you pay for it as you go. If it works, the resources will scale dynamically with increasing or decreasing demand.
There are different types of cloud models – the private cloud, which is provided to a restricted set of customers; the community cloud, which delivers cloud services to multiple organizations based on similar needs; the public cloud, which is an open third party platform that acts as a utility to many customers; and hybrid cloud, which combines multiple internal and external cloud providers within one cloud infrastructure to provide subscribers with greater choice.

If we look back in IT history, there have been models that can be compared to cloud computing, but to set them on an equal level as we see cloud computing today, would be false. Is distributed computing such as Seti@Home or Folding@Home cloud computing? What about Google Docs? What about utility computing? And software-as-a-service (SaaS)?

If you look closely, then none of those systems are synonymous with the phrase cloud computing. They are all sub-systems of cloud computing. SaaS is the software layer of cloud computing. Seti@Home is an example for what we refer to as the grid-computing layer. Google Docs is just software (service) as well. All those technologies (and a few more) combined represent parts of cloud computing. The cloud unifies individual computing ideas of the past and describes a way how we acquire them and how we pay for them.

Enterprise vs. Consumer

In the enterprise field, you could argue for days whether cloud computing is new or not. I would say, however, that there are substantial new trends we haven’t seen before. Businesses and government organizations show a willingness to host their critical data off site, for example. Security concerns are being addressed effectively and Google should be credited for driving this trend, while Oracle, for example, has missed this opportunity in the past few years entirely. Oracle could not get the highest security certifications from the U.S. government for its services. Google did.

I might also mention that today’s enterprise cloud computing concepts provide opportunities that are pretty new. Renting and sharing computing resources is not only the idea to save upfront investments: The best idea I have heard to take advantage of cloud computing so far is reverse capacity planning: A simple approach when you hear it, but it dramatically changes the way budgets for IT may be planned.

When you set up your server environment in the past, you had to plan for the maximum load and then some. The reality was that you had to over-purchase hardware to make sure your infrastructure was kept alive in emergency scenarios. In cloud computing,  you purchase the absolute minimum that is necessary to keep you running. And if you need more resources they are there and they will scale with you as you need them. And you only pay for what you need and when you need it. You don’t pay for servers that are potentially sitting idle most of the time.

Sure, cloud computing has disadvantages as well, but that isn’t really the topic here. It’s the definition of cloud computing.

I believe that Ellison’s remarks simplify the cloud beyond an acceptable level. If the cloud has been with us in the past, where exactly was it? It certainly was not in my past. 15 years ago, was I part of a cloud computing community simply because I had a dial-up modem access to Compuserve?

Today’s cloud computing idea goes far beyond the idea of anything that was cloud-related until a few years ago. It is stunning to see how much the consumer perception of renting services has changed: Cloud computing has massive consumer implications today – implications Ellison and many of us may not have seen even last year. We are storing lots of our data in the cloud already and we are getting more and more used to it. It’s not difficult to imagine that it is easier for us to see value in subscriptions to services, especially since we are already subscribing to cellphones, TV services, wireless broadband, etc. Our children will grow up with this concept and it will be natural for them to perceive software as a service and most likely view computing resources much like they view electricity.                

Name this: Cloud Computing

There are reasons why cloud computing is called cloud computing and not Internet, VPN, grid computing or SaaS. But I admit that the idea of cloud computing isn’t entirely new and as Ellison states, companies such as have been around for a while. They now use the term cloud computing, because it is fashionable, but also because we possibly understand what cloud computing roughly means. How did Ellison call this concept back in 1996? Thin-client computing? To be honest I can’t remember.

If we are comfortable with the phrase cloud computing, so what? If marketing tricks us into believing that it is new, so what? Seriously: Who cares? Whether it is called cloud computing, thin-client computing or, as Ellison called it in this video, water vapor, is meaningless. What matters is that the trend and phrase have caught on and that we are going to see a change in the way we will use computers and other connected devices in the future. And if you think about it, this change is substantial and it is likely to stick with us for a long time.  

  • nforce4max
  • dredj
    The U.S. needs a better broadband infrastructure, then, cloud computing will take off. I don't care what you call it, the masses will adopt it for reliability and ease of use. People like me, however, will stick to huge PC boxes where I can super-process what I want on my own hardware. At least, after I win that i7 rig....Tom's? You there?
  • jomofro39
    Maybe if he got his head out of the clouds.....
  • They should have called it i-cloud!
  • soccerplayer88
    Now we can have tech support AND our hardware over in foreign countries!

    Excellent idea...

  • sliem
    Who's he?
  • ricardok
    I do agree that cloud computing is something old. We had mainframes that did this "cloud computing" before but only on enterprise level. Not exactly the same as what we have now with several PCs connected to the internet and using programs located on a different continent, but still, it was, to some extent, cloud computing anyway.
  • Trialsking
    If Skynet can store all my games and stream Crysis 1 & 2 at 60+ Fps with 16xAA and 16XAF.....bring on the terminators!
  • agnickolov
    Actually, this long winded article simply validated Larry's point - the media loves to spin words, but the essence was with us since the early days of computing in the 50s and 60s. We had a hiatus into personal computing starting in the 80s and we are slowly coming back to the roots on a much grander scale today. This is the first cycle if cycle it indeed is, but the pendulum may swing back to personal computing in the future too...
  • False_Dmitry_II
    You could also say that cloud computing is simply the return of dumb terminals connected to a mainframe. That is ancient. I think this is the closest definition of what it is. You don't have pretty much any resources locally at all. You just sign in from wherever there is a terminal that has access and use as much computing power and storage as needed.

    Not only that, but yeah we'd need faster internet in the US to do it. All of my friends around here still have 1.5 down internet connections. I pay for 16 (charter cable) but most of the time get higher than that. Sometimes as much as 30 down and faster than they get down going up.

    Then there's Steam Cloud. Is having them keep all the settings and savegames on their servers close enough? I can still turn on whichever computer I feel like, including ones not mine, and download any cloud enabled game then pick up where I left off with all my settings. It's pretty close to the do whatever from anywhere which is just about right I'd say.