Cloud computing: Past, present and future

In this guest post, Susan Bowen, vice president and general manager at managed service provider Cogeco Peer 1, takes a look at the history of cloud computing, and where enterprises are going with the technology.

The late 1960s were optimistic days for technology advancements, reflected headily in the release of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey and its infamously intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000.

Around this time the concept of an intergalactic computing network was first mooted by a certain J.C.R. Licklider, who headed up the Information Processing Techniques Office at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

Charged with putting the US on the front foot, technologically, against the Soviets, ARPA was a hotbed of forward-thinking that pushed technology developments well beyond their existing limits.

Within this context, Licklider envisioned a global network that connected governments, institutions, corporations and individuals. He foresaw a future in which programs and data could be accessed from anywhere. Sounds a bit like cloud computing, doesn’t it?

This vision actually inspired the development of ARPANET, an early packet switching network, and the first to implement the protocol suite TCP/IP. In short, this was the technical foundation of the internet as we now know it.

It also laid the foundation for grid computing, an early forerunner of cloud, which linked together geographically dispersed computers to create a loosely coupled network. In turn this led to the development of utility computing which is closer to what Licklider originally envisioned.

It’s also closer to what we think of as the cloud today, with a service provider owning, operating and managing the computing infrastructure and resources, which are made available to users on an on-demand, pay-as-you-go basis.

From virtualisation to cloud

Dovetailing with this is the development of virtualisation which, along with increased bandwidth, has been a significant driving force for cloud computing.

In fact, virtualisation ultimately led to the emergence of operations like in 1999, which pioneered the concept of delivering enterprise applications via a simple website.

These services firm paved the way for a wide range of software firms to deliver applications over the internet. But the emergence of Amazon Web Services in 2002 really set the cloud ball rolling, with its cloud-based services including storage and compute.

The launch of Amazon’s Elastic Compute cloud several years later was the first widely accessible cloud computing infrastructure service, allowing small companies to rent computers to run their own computer applications on.

It was a god send for many small businesses and start-ups helping them eschew costly in-house infrastructures and get to market quickly.

When cloud is not the answer

Of course, cloud went through a ‘hype’ phase and certainly there were unrealistic expectations and a tendency to see the cloud as a panacea that could solve everything.

This inevitably led to poor decision making when crafting a cloud adoption strategy, often characterised by a lack of understanding and under investment.

This led a few enterprises adopt an “all-in” approach to cloud, only to pull back as their migration plans progress, with few achieving their original objectives.

Today expectations are tempered by reality and in a sense the cloud has been demystified and its potential better understood.

For instance business discussions have moved from price-points to business outcomes.

Enterprises are also looking at the cloud on an application by application basis, considering what works best as well as assessing performance benchmarks, network requirements, their appetite for risk and whether cloud suppliers are  their competitors or not.

In short they understand the agility and flexibility of the cloud definitely makes it a powerful business tool, but they want to understand the nut and bolts too.

The evolution of cloud computing

Nearly every major enterprise has virtualised its server estate, which is a big driver for cloud adoption.

At the same time the cloud business model has evolved into three categories, each with varying entry costs and advantages: infrastructure-as-a-service, software-as-a-service, and platform-as-a-service. Within this context private cloud, colocation and hosted services remain firmly part of the mix today.

While cloud has its benefits, enterprises are running into issues, as their migrations continue.

For instance, the high cost of some software-as-a-service offerings has caught some enterprises out, while the risk of lock-in with infrastructure-as-a-service providers is also a concern for some. As the first flush of cloud computing dissipates, enterprises are becoming more cautious about being tied into a service.

The scene is now set for the future of cloud, with a focus on hybrid and multi-cloud deployments. In five years’ time, terminology like hybrid-IT, multi cloud and managed services, will a thing of the past.

It will be a given, and there won’t just be one cloud solution, or one data solution, it will be about how clouds connect and about maximising how networks are used.

Hybrid solutions should mean that workloads will automatically move to the most optimised and cost-effective environment, based on performance needs, security, data residency, application workload characteristics, end-user demand and traffic.

This could be in the public cloud, or private cloud, or on-premise, or a mix of all. It could be an internal corporate network or the public internet, but end-users they won’t know and they don’t care either.

There is an application architecture refactoring that is required to make this happen with existing architectures shifting from classic three-tiers to event driven.

Cloud providers are already pushing for these features to be widely adopted for cloud-native applications. And as enterprises evolve to adapt, hyperscale public clouds, and service providers are adapting to reach back into on-premise data centres.

This trend will continue over the next five to ten years with the consumption nature of the cloud growing in uptake.

While we wouldn’t call this the intergalactic computing network as ARPA’s Licklider originally envisioned, it’s certainly moving closer to a global network that will connect governments, institutions, corporations and individuals.

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