Internet Day: A Brief History of Cloud Computing

On October 29, 1969, Charley Kline sent a message from the computer science department of the University of California, Los Angeles, to Bill Duvall at Stanford.

Although Kline only managed to transmit the first two letters of the word “login” before Duvall’s terminal crashed, it was the first time data had ever been transmitted across a long-distance computer network. 

This epochal moment is regarded as the birth of the internet, which has been described as “the most important invention in human history”. This transmission is commemorated every year on Internet Day, which was founded 15 years ago to give humanity a “chance to celebrate the people who helped build the internet, while also giving us a moment to reflect on all the ways that it has changed our lives forever,” according to its organisers. 

Sadly, there is no day set up to celebrate the birth of cloud computing, even though this technology is proving to be almost as revolutionary as the internet itself. We’re now familiar with the concept of the cloud – a metaphor describing a remote network of computing resources which can be accessed on-demand. Consumers store their photos in the cloud, whilst workers around the world use cloud services every day at work and companies rely on remote servers to power their business. But the story of its inception is not so familiar. 

The seeds of cloud can be seen as early as 1961 when Professor John McCarthy – co-author of a document which coined the term “artificial intelligence” – delivered a speech to commemorate MIT’s centennial in which he predicted that “computing may someday be organised as a public utility, just as the telephone system is a public utility”. 

The image of a cloud was first used to represent networks of computers as early as 1977, when it was employed within the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which was one of the first networks to implement the TCP/IP protocol. Back in the sixties and seventies, computer resources were already being shared among several users – but this was described as time-sharing, rather than cloud computing. 

Some industry watchers believe that the first use of the world “cloud” came in 1993, when General Magic used it whilst describing Telescript, its distributed programming language. Speaking to Wired in 1994, General Magic co-founder Andy Hertzfeld said: “The beauty of Telescript… is that now, instead of just having a device to program, we now have the entire cloud out there, where a single program can go and travel to many different sources of information and create a sort of a virtual service. No one had conceived that before.”

However, the origin of the phrase “cloud computing” is hotly debated. In 1996, a Compaq document called “Internet Solutions Division Strategy for Cloud Computing” described the concept of cloud computing. This term was also used in a 1997 patent application by a company called Netcentric. Then in 1999, Salesforce started to offer users the ability to run applications over the internet, marking the beginning of Software as a Service.

The cloud really burst onto the scene in 2006, when Amazon re-launched Amazon Web Services and made its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) available to the general public. At a conference that year, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: “I don’t think people have really understood how big this opportunity really is. It starts with the premise that the data services and architecture should be on servers. 

“We call it cloud computing – they should be in a ‘cloud’ somewhere. And, that if you have the right kind of browser or the right kind of access, it doesn’t matter whether you have a PC or a Mac or a mobile phone or a BlackBerry or what have you – or new devices still to be developed – you can get access to the cloud.”

After this seminal talk, the cloud industry began to form into its modern shape, with data centres taking up the heavy lifting before private clouds began to emerge. In 2010, Microsoft released Microsoft Azure and that same year, Rackspace Hosting and NASA jointly launched an open-source cloud-software initiative called OpenStack. 

Today, everyday consumers are familiar with the cloud and happily store their data in remote storage locations. The industry is undergoing dramatic growth, with Gartner predicting that the worldwide public cloud services market will grow by 6.3% in 2020 to a total of $257.9 billion, up from $242.7 billion in 2019. This growth will only accelerate as key trends like home-working and the Internet of Things ramp up demand for remote computation or storage, with Gartner also suggesting the global market will be worth $364million by 2022, with Cloud Application Services (SaaS) making up almost a third of the market and Cloud System Infrastructure Services (IaaS) comprising just under a fifth. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major test for cloud providers, but also shows the scale of the opportunity ahead. 

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were a few initial hiccups but cloud ultimately delivered exactly what it was supposed to,” said Sid Nag, research vice president at Gartner in a briefing note containing the predictions, which was released in July 2020. “It responded to increased demand and catered to customers’ preference of elastic, pay-as-you-go consumption models.”

“The use of public cloud services offer CIOs two distinct advantages during the COVID-19 pandemic: cost scale with use and deferred spending. CIOs can invest significantly less cash upfront by utilizing cloud technology rather than scaling up on-premises data center capacity or acquiring traditional licensed software.

“Any debate around the utility of public cloud has been put aside since the onset of COVID-19. For the remainder of 2020, organizations that expand remote work functionality will prioritize collaboration software, mobile device management, distance learning educational solutions and security, as well as the infrastructure to scale to support increased capacity.”

The future is looking bright for the cloud, which has the potential to open up new ways of working and empower both companies and individuals. Is it time we started to celebrate International Cloud Computing Day as well as Internet Day? 

About the Author

Jon Lucas is Co-director at Hyve Managed Hosting. At Hyve, we combine our small team ethos with a passion for technology and support by providing fully managed, global cloud hosting services. As certified Google and Equinix partners, we are expertly positioned to power your success

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