Look at All the Pretty Clouds!

Look at all the pretty clouds! Every day there are more clouds filling the sky, and that trend won’t change anytime soon. It appears that the future, at least for information technology, will be entirely in some type of cloud or even in multiclouds. To get a picture of where we’re going, let’s take a moment to look at where we have been.

The concept of cloud computing can be traced back to the 1950s. In that era, large-scale mainframe computers, now seen as the start and the future of the cloud, were available to academia and larger corporations. Mainframes have an extremely large barrier to entry: cost. The high price of mainframes meant that only large organizations could deploy and use them.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, and IBM developed the VM operating system to provide time-sharing services. This allowed multiple organizations to use the same mainframe and reduced idle computing time. The first personal computers, released at the end of the same decade, gave rise to the wild idea that one day just about everyone would have their own computer in their home.

In the 1990s, we saw the birth of x86 virtualization. This technology was not only the birth of commodity hardware virtualization, but also the cradle of modern-day cloud computing systems. If we view virtualization as the infancy of the concept, then now we have moved into our teenage years of developing maturity.

There has been a great deal of innovation since the turn of the century. OpenNebula was the first open-source software for private and hybrid cloud deployment, and that was only seven years ago (2008). And you can’t discuss the history of the cloud without mentioning Rackspace Hosting and NASA, which brought us OpenStack in 2010.

Public clouds were conceptualized over a decade ago in 2003, when Chris Pinkham and Benjamin Black presented a paper describing a retail computing infrastructure for Amazon. A particularly prescient footnote in that paper mentioned the idea of selling virtual servers as a service. In 2006, Amazon Web Services, or, if you will, the “public cloud,” was launched. The rest, as they say, is history.

When it started, the public cloud was used mainly for development purposes. However, it didn’t take long for the public cloud to become a natural extension of a company’s private cloud. Hybrid clouds became increasingly prevalent among IT departments. Did anyone really believe that hybrid clouds would stop with a single public cloud? Dimensional Research conducted a survey commissioned by Equinix and discovered that, of the 650 IT decision makers surveyed, a majority were looking into the deployment of multiple clouds in both the short and long term. You’re probably working in a company that has taken that leap. Multiple clouds are most often seen as services, such as Office 365, Salesforce, ServiceNow, and Jive Software.

It was just a matter of time before companies and end user consumers reached in a different direction, looking for better value in the software they were already using. I believe this trend will continue via the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, which is significantly easier to administrate. In this model, all users work within the same version of the software company-wide, because patching and upgrades, as well as general support and system maintenance, are handled automatically by the vendor.

For all practical purposes, have we just redefined the term “managed service” for the twenty-first century? Could we even call this approach “IT à la carte”? I believe this is the way of the future, barring unforeseen major disasters for those companies. One that could tip over the applecart would be intrusion and theft of data on a major scale. This has already happened and will happen repeatedly in the future. Only the scope and depth of the intrusion and theft will change.

This brings me to my last point. Have we, as an industry, become far too dependent on outsourcing? Each of the different clouds that companies connect to brings its own security issues and risks. Do these risks threaten the health and security of the overarching cloud itself? Consider, for example, the recent hack of Target that exposed credit card and debit card information from 40 million accounts. The fascinating part of the story is that the hack was traced back to a third-party vendor that handled refrigeration, heating, and air conditioning for a number of Target stores. Once the “hackers” were able to get on the HVAC network, they seemed to have no trouble breaking into Target’s payment systems from that network. This demonstrates how multiple interconnections and shared resources can be an invitation to disaster in ways that we aren’t considering. No matter what technology or innovation it is, even as it makes the end user’s life easier, there are always unintended risks and consequences that come with it.

Can you think of any examples along those lines? Smartphones and ePasses are the first things that come to my mind. What comes to yours, when you look at all the pretty clouds?

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