Cloud computing is 15 years old today (even if it's nebulous)

In 2001, New York Times reporter John Markoff used ‘cloud’ to describe a movement that was to change computing

Fifteen years ago today the New York Times published an article that was a totemic moment for what we today call “cloud computing”. In the piece, published in 2001, the Times’ esteemed technology reporter John Markoff wrote:

“For Microsoft, the idea behind .Net is software programs that do not reside on any one computer but instead exist in the ‘cloud’ of computers that make up the Internet.

“Since last summer, [Microsoft’s then chairman, Bill] Mr. Gates has been working to transform his company through systems like the recently announced Hailstorm project, which aims to move most of a computer user's personal information — from daily calendar to banking information — from the desktop PC and into the network cloud, where a user could have access to it from a variety of devices and locations.”

Of course pedants will tell you that the cloud existed before as the symbol for network intersections (and later the internet) on technical schematic diagrams - hence the term, indirectly, cloud computing. But Markoff was at the very least prescient in his choice of words and it doesn’t really matter too much whether you buy into his article being the starting gun for the cloud movement or prefer to delve further back or later to Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud or Google’s Eric Schmidt speaking about “cloud” at conferences. What matters more is the remarkable progress the cloud has made in transforming the way we use computers in business and as consumers today.

Naysayers once claimed (and a few still do) that cloud is really just a return to mainframe timesharing and it’s true that the cloud model for deploying and consuming ICT services did not come from nowhere. Closer to our time, in the mid-Nineties there was lots of media hype about application service providers or ASPs, most of which took orthodox PC applications and made them available online for a subscription fee. But uptake hardly matched the industry excitement and the ASPs mostly disappeared with the exception of a few specialists, for example those offering backup services online.

It seemed almost foolhardy then for to launch its CRM service commercially in 1999, just as most of us were consigning the ASPs to history - or aspic, perhaps. Like a marathon runner who leads from the front and dares the rest to follow and keep pace, Salesforce went on to become perhaps the most important business-to-business startup of its generation. It had what business technologists like to call a ‘halo effect’, attracting others to pursue, or redouble their efforts, in the market: NetSuite in accounting/e-commerce, Workday, SuccessFactors and Taleo in human capital management, Google and Zoho in productivity applications, and thousands of others.

We called them SaaS for software-as-a-service but the ‘cloud’ name began to stick about 10 years ago and now it’s everywhere even if it remains, appropriately enough, the most nebulous of umbrella terms.

Why did it succeed? Cloud won fans for the subscription model that let firms try it at low risk and to get projects started quickly and then flex up and down – and across the world - as needed. You could access the new services from anywhere on any browser-equipped device regardless of operating system and cloud coincided serendipitously with the emergence of fast wireless broadband and the proliferation of affordable smartphones and other mobile devices.

Cloud was also admired for the excellent user experiences offered when compared to most business software that had slavishly imitated the Microsoft Windows/Office screen metaphors. The new online services could take their visual and usability cues from a wave of hugely successful consumer cloud companies from Google and Amazon to Facebook and a renascent Apple.

Today, cloud is pretty well ubiquitous from platforms like AWS and Azure to private clouds, hybrid variants, the aforementioned applications and beyond, even if security, latency and networking issues mean that cloud will never be 100 per cent of the computing world. Cloud might just be the latest platform used to deploy IT but, like the mainframe and client/server architectures before, it is also the basis for a generation of new companies who can quickly build the necessary infrastructure and services to meet the needs of flexible, global, always-on businesses.

Fifteen years! And still the cloud mushrooms, covering more and more areas once dominated by internal functions, boxes, discs, software and datacentres. The overall reason it has succeeded is that it is a fundamentally better model than the on-premises version. It’s no panacea of course: costs can add up as services are accreted, availability and performance need monitoring and security and governance remain challenges (although that’s not unique to the model). But cloud has generally been a boon for modern organisations. In 15 years from now, 2031, it will be a surprise indeed if most of us are not ‘cloud-first’ in our thinking and for today’s young people, the idea of purchasing gear outright will seem as remote as the concept of white-coated men administering mainframes in tiled rooms to a select few accessing dumb terminals is to the PC generation.