I got a comment on last week's post suggesting the cloud was nothing more than an updated version of the mainframe. After all, back in the day we logged into dumb terminals to access a set of resources and how different is this from accessing infrastructure on AWS? I've seen this argument before, which states the cloud as a concept is just marketing hype and it's simply a rehash of this earlier idea. While it's true there are some similarities, there are major differences too.First of all, the cloud isn't just about accessing shared infrastructure. It also includes software services and platform services to build your own applications. While these services are all powerful on their own, the cloud is more than simply a set of inexpensive and accessible services. It's a concept about connectivity and giving users access to content and these services wherever they happen to be on whatever device they happen to be using.
When there were dumb terminals, people weren't walking around with powerful mobile devices full of apps and access to the internet. They were sitting at a desk, most likely doing one or two things all day long – and people who were doing more powerful tasks had to wait in a queue for the computing resources to do that. Even if you update that to the client-server era with more powerful stand-alone computers doing more tasks, it was still less efficient as I'll explain.
Throughout both these computing eras, there was a high level of complexity and it required well trained experts to run and understand. Programming was difficult and the whole system was expensive. Today's cloud tools are designed for simplicity to make it easier for the company to manage their infrastructure, run software, and build applications in a cost-effective manner.
As I wrote to the commentator, "When we were sharing from dumb terminals, we were doing so because we needed to share a limited number of resources among a large group of people and this was the only way to parcel it out. It was scarce and it was expensive. With the cloud, it's the opposite. We have access to virtually unlimited resources and we can scale up or down as needed and only pay for what we use. The notion of scarcity versus abundance is what makes it so different."
The cloud also brings the notion of elasticity. If you need a dozen extra servers for the holiday rush, you can access them when needed, and take them back down when the rush is over. This is a concept that would have been unthinkable back in the day. Even in a client-server system, it would never have been cost-effective to buy and deploy servers for a short-term operation and then stick them in a warehouse until you needed them again. The cloud makes this a simple matter.
In the days of old, you required expensive software licenses to run your programs and on mainframes, and employees had to share the licenses. As we advanced to client-server, companies often over-bought licenses leaving unused ones as a huge cost. Today, you sign up employees as you need to. While there is still a notion of the license in larger settings, the process is different from previous times when it was much less flexible and contracts tend to be much more transparent.
Software as a Service also means you don't have to deal with management of upgrades because the vendor takes care of it for you on the back end, making it much easier to deploy software.
Having access to these services has lead to the development of entirely new businesses that would have been impossible without a cloud layer. The cloud provides the connective tissue, the software and the shared services, and without these services, it would have been prohibitively expensive for many of today's most popular companies to ever get off the ground.
Finally, the devices for accessing these services are so much more powerful. The dumb terminal was, well, pretty dumb. And while we have virtual desktops, even the dumbest machine today isn't all that dumb. The phones we carry in our pockets are powerful computers. The Chromebook, the modern equivalent of the dumb terminal, is still a highly sophisticated computer with its own memory and solid state drive. It can access the internet and any cloud service. You can have video chats with it, take pictures, store pictures and other content on that drive. And Google has begun distributing Android apps for use on Chromebook increasing its utility even more.
So while Infrastructure as a Service surely has some shared concepts with dumb terminals accessing a mainframe or mini computer, the idea is much more complex than that and the cloud offers much more than basic access to compute services.
Photo Credit: (c) Can Stock Photo.