Darwin’s theory of evolution or the Big Bang: which applies to cloud computing?

How many times have you heard others saying that cloud computing is a new technology revolution? Perhaps you have entered into a debate of deciding whether cloud is an evolution of existing technologies or not. Well, like many of you I often see people argue on this topic. Cloud, the disruptive technology that we know today, is the outcome of technological advancements over many years. Over time it has matured to become a powerful tool and an enabler of business success through its attributes in today’s competitive market. In this blog, I would like to discuss how cloud has evolved over time. Following discussion is a modified blog version of my original discussion and ideas presented in my book chapter “Cloud Computing Terms, Definitions, and Taxonomy.”

Let me first start with a statement made by Maria Spinola which I believe will support my discussion here.

“Cloud Computing is not a technology revolution, but rather a process and business evolution on how we use those technologies that enables Cloud Computing as it exists today: SaaS, inexpensive storage, REST, AJAX, SOA(service-oriented architectures), On Demand Computing, Grid Computing, Utility computing, virtualization, etc.”

Advancements in computing systems, hardware, Internet and communication technologies, smarter software system and ongoing innovations have changed the IT landscape. It has radically improved the way how we interact with each other and we perform businesses. These advancements have bolstered cloud computing. Cloud is the culmination of grid computing, utility computing, unified communication (UC), Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), Web 2.0 and many other similar technologies. Recently IBM Institute of Business Values, in conjunction with Economist Intelligence Unit, performed a survey on cloud computing. This study finds that mobile revolution, social media explosion, hyper digitization and analytics are the major trends driving business change these days. These trends will act as catalyst for cloud adoption and a decisive factor for setting direction and usage of cloud computing now and in future.

Now let’s look into the history of cloud computing. It has been unanimously agreed that the idea of cloud computing dates back to 1961 when Professor John McCarthy publicly suggested that computer time-sharing technology might lead to a platform in future when computing power and even applications could be offered or sold as public utility (similar to electricity or water). Although idea of time sharing became popular in 1960s, there has been a fall of popularity later due to lack of software, hardware and networking technologies to enable this computing model. This idea did not see its wide adoption then.

Now fast forward to 2000. Since the advent of the new millennium we have seen proliferation of technology advancement in networking, software and hardware and as such reincarnation of this old concept. Many research papers tout cloud computing as the reincarnation of the time-sharing systems of 1960s and network and grid computing of the 1990s.

A very interesting discussion on the evolution of cloud computing was covered in an academic research paper entitled “Cloud Computing: New Wine or Just a New Bottle?” This paper has defined six phases of computing paradigm shifts over the last 50 years which had led us to cloud computing. Phase one goes back to the early days of mainframes. In this phase many people shared powerful mainframes by dummy terminal. IBM was the pioneer in offering mainframe services through time sharing in the 1960s. Phase two has seen the rise of personal computers (PCs). There was a shift from mainframe to PC. PCs were smaller but powerful enough to serve some customers’ needs. In phase three, people started to connect their computer within local area network to share resources. In phase four, these local networks were interconnected to create a global network. This heralded the birth of Internet. In this phase users utilized this Internet to access remote application and resources. Internet became a commodity for business success. Any tech-savvy person will know about this dot-com bubble. In phase five, we have seen the birth of grid computing, predecessor of cloud computing. Computer power and storage were shared though distributed computing. Phase six introduced cloud computing to us, tapping on the technological advancements over the last 50 years.  As per the definition of cloud computing by National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), it is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

Well, while discussing the six phases above, I did not mention about client server model from the 1990s. This technology did not gain momentum due to design issues and absence of scalability and flexibility features. However, cloud computing was able to display and inherit good attributes taken from all previous generations (See Darwin’s Theory of Evolution) and address new challenges not supported in earlier technologies. We can see how cloud computing has gradually evolved to the form it is now in today. It is still evolving to address business challenges and keep up with evolutionary changes emerged from social and market trends, service oriented architecture, Web 2.0, exponential growth in connected devices, collaboration and social networking. Cloud is definitely not formed in one day by a “Big Bang.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology and a visiting Lecturer at MIT, has compared evolution around cloud computing to the Cambrian explosion which happened more than 500 million years ago, in an Economist article entitled “Let it rise.” During this period, rate of evolution sped up due to cell perfection and standardization among other reasons. Thus evolution to more complex organisms took place. A similar analogy can also be made to the evolution of cloud computing. With the maturity, development and advancements of technologies over the last 50 years, the building blocks to make a complex IT system have been standardized.  These technologies coupled with the drive to increase IT efficiency are acting as a catalyst for the evolution of cloud computing.

In conclusion, cloud computing is a revolutionary style of computing emerging from evolutionary changes. It is the “old wine in a new bottle.” Cloud is not formed out of a “Big Bang” but it is definitely creating a digital “Big Bang.” This digital “Big Bang” is fundamentally transforming every industry sector we can think of and leaving a profound impact on our life.

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