Where did 'cloud' come from?

Users love it, many in IT hate it; cloud changed the relationship between the two forever

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It has only been six years since the 2006 conference appearance in which Google's Eric Schmidt's reference to Google services as belonging "in a cloud somewhere," introduced the term in to common use and got Schmidt credit for coining it.

"I don't think people have really understood how big this opportunity really is." Schmidt told attendees at a Search Engine Strategies conference. "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.

There are rival claims, of course.

Blogger, programmer and Silicon Valley pundit Dave Winer may also have a claim for referring to the Internet in a 2001 NYT article as a "cloud" of computers, though an effort by a defunct company called NetCentric to trademark the term in 1997 predates him.

A Technology Review article in 2011 suggested the oldest use of "cloud computing" was at a 1996 meeting of Internet and startup-company executives at Compaq offices in Houston, who's imagineering described the universe being transformed by the Internet as one in which "'cloud-computing' enabled applications" would become commonly available via the web.

They were right; so was Schmidt.

So was Winer, though his reference is more clearly one connected to the ancient (in IT terms) presentations of telecom sales engineers who either despaired at ever explaining the complexities of long-distance wide-area-networking to customers (or just didn't want to bother).

In conceptual diagrams metaphorically describing how a prospective customer's facilities could all be connected to the same network (a revolutionary idea in the '70s and early '80s), they included images of the customer's buildings with specific references to the type of leased-line connecting each to the carrier's network.

Rather giving away too much information on their own infrastructure (or confusing customers) by describing the telco's own internal networking infrastructure, they drew a fluffy cloud, surrounded by the customer's facilities.

In diagrams customer data would flow across expensive leased lines from one facility, enter the magic telco cloud, and come out on the other end to flow into another company facility through another expensive leased line.

A cloud by any other name would be just as meaningless

By 2006 the meaning was much different. The Internet was still too mysterious and complicated to diagram, but it had acquired an abstraction layer – software designed to reach all the dark corners of the Internet and handle its abstruse requirements, but was simple for end users to learn and operate.

That's where the cloud was born – between the technology living in data centers owned by IT vendors and end users who could find the answer to every trivia question in seconds or instantly contact colleagues on the other side of the world, but couldn't get IT to install an important application without waiting in line for months or years before it could happen.

Despite enough hype to encase the whole computer industry in yards and yards of fog-colored joyful expectations, far fewer companies have made significant migrations to the cloud than most believe.

Far more are either talking about cloud-computing projects, or are moving forward with pilot projects, small-scale tests or are watching and supporting end-user-initiated rogue cloud projects to see how they work out and how well they might integrate later with the company's existing infrastructure.

Only 20 percent of businesses have completed any significant cloud migrations, according to a Symantec study of 5,300 IT executives that was released in October.

One reason could be the gap between the enormous potential of cloud and the significant-but-finite benefit they actually got by installing it.

Of 88 percent who said they launched a cloud project expecting it to allow the company to be much more agile, only 47 percent found that to be true, according to Symantec.

Nevertheless, the unending hype and the positive experiences of both IT and end users with consumer-oriented external cloud services has accustomed end users to the assumption that they can get top-quality software, networks and operating environments for very small amounts of money, paid in installments, according to Gartner analyst Chris Howard.

Those expectations may not be realistic, but they are real, according to Howard. Real enough to raise the bar of expectation on IT in general and, often, make end users unenthusiastic about either the cloud or traditional IT systems then end up with, not to mention the IT departments that gave it to them.

If you're an end user, the advent of cloud has gotten better with every increasingly disruptive ripple it sent through the IT world. If you're in IT, you're either a huge fan of cloud for giving you access to top-quality IT without running all the cables yourself. Or you're at the other end of the spectrum – hating cloud for what it's done to your security, your organization and the relative subservience of your end users. Those end users don't resent IT silently any more. They're not just tempted to rise up and give the preventers of IT services what-for. They're practically compelled to do it, and far more able to, what with their new ability to buy way better IT than IT is usually willing to give them, for just a credit card number and enough moxie to tell IT where to get off.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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