Origins of Cloud Computing
“Cloud” is a buzzword that vaguely suggests the promise and convenience of being able to access files from anywhere. But the reality is that the cloud is hardly floating like mist above our heads — it’s a physical infrastructure, its many computers housed in massive warehouses all over the world. And yet as long as it’s easy to read email on our phones and watch movies on our laptops, we generally don’t take the time to wonder where our data actually goes, how it gets there, and what happens to it on its way.
What is actually happening when you punt your files, photos, and videos up to servers owned by Apple, Google, and Amazon? Let’s peek behind the cloud, and face reality.
While the term “cloud computing” has only entered the public’s lexicon in the past 10 years or so, the idea’s been around for decades. Cloud computing basically refers to a process of sharing resources to optimize performance. Practically speaking, that means using a network of computers to store and process information, rather than a single machine.
The early days of computing actually leaned heavily on a pretty similar concept. Back in the 1950s, when computer mainframes were the size of a room, users would log on to a dumb terminal to take advantage of the machine’s processing power. (They’re called dumb terminals because they can’t really do much of anything without the mainframe.) This time-sharing model is pretty analogous to the way cloud computing works on the internet today. But instead of one massive computer in the middle of a room, we rely on a global infrastructure of servers and data centers to do the heavy lifting.
By the time the 90s rolled around, it was pretty clear to the cyber-prophets of days gone by that the future would enable the whole world to share resources. Engineers started using a drawing of a cloud to refer to this network in patent drawings in the mid-90s. Compaq engineers coined the term “cloud computing” in late 1996, and less than a year later, Steve Jobs described a prototype iCloud at WWDC.
It was pretty revolutionary at the time. You store your files one place and you can access them from any device. Fast forward to the iPhone era, and it’s easy to forget the dark ages, when you actually had to burn CDs and tote around external hard drives.