A Brief History of Cloud Computing

Threat Intel’s ‘History of…’ series will look at the origins and evolution of notable developments in cyber security.

What exactly is cloud computing? This is something that, no doubt, most people have wondered in recent times, as more and more of the services we use have migrated to the semi-mythical “cloud”.

One dictionary definition of cloud computing defines it as: “Internet-based computing in which large groups of remote servers are networked so as to allow sharing of data-processing tasks, centralized data storage, and online access to computer services or resources.” Users no longer need vast local services to access storage or carry out certain tasks, they can do it all “in the cloud”, which essentially means over the internet.

If we go back to the very beginning, we can trace cloud computing’s origins all the way back to the 1950s, and the concept of time-sharing. At that time, computers were both huge and hugely expensive, so not every company could afford to have one. To tackle this, users would “time-share” a computer. Basically, they would rent the right to use the computer’s computational power, and share the cost of running it. In a lot of ways, that remains the basic concept of cloud computing today.

In the 1970s, the creation of “virtual machines” took the time-share model to a new level. This development allowed multiple computing environments to be housed in one physical environment. This was a key development that made it possible for the cloud computing we know today to develop.

Professor Ramnath Chellappa is often credited with being the person who coined the term “cloud computing” in its modern context, at a lecture he delivered in 1997. He defined it then as a “computing paradigm where the boundaries of computing will be determined by economic rationale rather than technical limits alone.” However, some months before this, in 1996, a business plan created by a group of technologists at Compaq also used the term when discussing the “evolution” of computing. So, while the source of the expression might be in dispute, it is clear that the modern “cloud” was something that was being seriously thought about by those in the IT industry in the mid ’90s — 20 years ago.

Modern developments

In 2006, Amazon launched Amazon Web Services (AWS), which provided services such as computing and storage in the cloud. Back then, you could rent computer power or storage from Amazon by the hour. Nowadays, you can rent more than 70 services, including analytics, software and mobile services. Its S3 storage service holds reams of data and services millions of requests every second. Amazon Web Services is used by more than one million customers in 190 countries. Massive companies including Netflix and AOL don’t have their own data centers but exclusively use AWS. Its projected revenue for 2017 was $18 billion.

While the other major tech players, such as Microsoft Azure, did subsequently launch their own cloud offerings to compete with AWS, it dominates the cloud infrastructure market; according to recent reports, at the end of 2017 it held a 62 percent market share of the public cloud business, with Microsoft Azure holding 20 percent, and Google 12 percent. While AWS is still way ahead of its rivals in this space, it is interesting to note that its market share did drop since the previous year, while both Microsoft and Google’s market share grew.

While AWS dominates in the enterprise space, when it comes to consumers, they are probably most familiar with services like Dropbox, iCloud and Google Drive, which they use to store back-ups of photos, documents, and more. The increased use by people of mobile devices with smaller storage capacities increased the need for cloud-based storage among consumers. While they may lack understanding about what exactly the cloud is, it is likely that most consumers are using at least one cloud-based service. The cloud has allowed for the growth of the mobile economy, in many ways, allowing for the development of apps that may not have been possible in the absence of a cloud infrastructure.

In organizations, the numbers using cloud services is even larger. The Symantec ISTR 2017 showed that the average enterprise has 928 cloud apps in use, though many businesses don’t realize that their employees are actually using so many cloud services.

The growth of mobile devices led to an inevitable growth in cloud usage by consumers

Security concerns

However, while there are many advantages to cloud computing, and many reasons why companies and individuals use cloud services, it does present some security concerns. One of the appeals of information stored on the cloud is that it can be accessed remotely, however, if inadequate security protocols are in place, this is also one of its weaknesses. There have been many stories in the news about Amazon S3 buckets being left on the web unsecured and revealing personal information about people. However, as it seems unlikely that cloud computing is going anywhere, the answer to these kinds of issues is more likely to be improving people’s cyber security practices to ensure they protect data stored online with strong passwords and other forms of authentication, such as two-factor and encryption.

The adoption of cloud was almost inevitable in our hyper-connected world. The need for computing power and storage simply became too expensive and too much for many businesses and individuals to tackle, meaning they needed to farm out these tasks to cloud services. As the move to mobile continually escalates, and as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow as a sector, cloud computing is set to continue its growth.

It may have started out as a marketing term, but cloud computing is an important reality in today’s IT world.

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