History Lessons for Cloud Computing

2013 will no doubt see continued adoption of Cloud Computing for both consumer and enterprise use. No matter if you are a cloud builder or a cloud user, it is worth looking back over the last 30 years or so of computing and networking to see what historical lessons we can learn. Clouds, by their nature, bring together many of the different technologies that have evolved over the last 30 years and thus many of the same lessons learned in other information technology sectors might have relevance to the future of cloud computing.

The original NetWare product, introduced in 1983, was one of the first technologies to bring networking to PCs. Back then, it was unheard of for a PC to come standard with a network card much less any networking software. The IBM PC, introduced two years earlier in 1981, was still in it’s infancy but any business that had two or more PCs was a candidate for networking.

Networked minicomputers had been around for a bit longer, including the DECnet protocol introduced in 1975. However, it wasn’t until 1982 that DECnet evolved into a seven-layer OSI-compliant stack. The early 1980’s was definitely a heyday for the fast evolving world of computer networking.

Proprietary networking standards like NetWare or DECnet provided generally better performance and greater functionality than Ethernet in the early 1980s. While Ethernet predated even DECnet, having been developed between 1973 and 1974 at Xerox PARC, the first commercial Ethernet implementations didn’t become available until the early 1980’s and were not standardized until about 1985. Of course today, NetWare, DECnet, and virtually every other proprietary networking technology has ceased general use and virtually every PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone uses Ethernet and related standards to connect to the Internet.

The lesson for Cloud Computing from the network world is that standards, especially open standards, matter. Of course at a basic level, every cloud today uses some standards, for instance Ethernet, to connect to networks. But just like the ’80s and ’90s saw competing operating systems in both the consumer and commercial space, Cloud Computing implementations today run the gamut from proprietary to open. Lets take a look at where along this spectrum some of the major cloud players are headed.

One of the oldest cloud computing players, Amazon Web Services or AWS for short, has used its own proprietary software platform since launching in 2002. No one else was thinking about cloud computing in 2002 and there simply didn’t exist software or open standards for cloud computing so Amazon built their own. If you want to build your own cloud, you can’t buy the AWS software from Amazon, however, you can run an AWS-compatible cloud using software from Eucalyptus a startup out of UC Santa Barbara. Eucalyptus, who’s CEO Martin Mickos is no stranger to open source, having run open source database company MySQL and then selling it to Sun Microsystems for $1B. Following the successful MySQL model, Eucalyptus makes a base version of their software available for free and open source, and makes money by selling and supporting commercial versions. Leave it to Martin and team to figure out how to make money using an open source business model making software compatible with one of the largest proprietary clouds.

AWS originally focused on enterprise offerings, services initially used by startups like photo sharing site SmugMug. Today, countless large commercial companies run at least bits and pieces of their enterprise on AWS, if not their core business. While AWS is generally reliable, it’s widespread use leads to major publicity when there are outages, like when Netflix users lost service this past Christmas eve. Today, AWS also offers consumer services like the Amazon Cloud Player that lets you store and play your music.

Speaking of music, Apple, the company that reshaped the music industry with iTunes and iPODs, is a major player in the consumer cloud business, where it follows its traditional proprietary software model. It is perhaps only because they have a limited presence with enterprise services that Apple isn’t more often thought of as a top cloud company, but iCloud quickly became one of the largest clouds as Apple enabled users to move their music, video, and other content onto the cloud instead of being trapped inside your music player. But even Apple can’t make all things it touches golden. Apple Maps, heavily dependent on services from the Apple cloud, was recently launched with less than favorable comparisons to Google Maps. In fact, AllThingsD technology writer Liz Gannes recently wrote that in 2012 she basically stopped using Apple apps on her phone. She still has an iPhone, she just uses apps from Google and others.

Perhaps one of the most used cloud services, across both enterprise and consumer clouds, is still email. Gmail, launched by Google in 2004, Yahoo! Mail launched in 1997, and Hotmail, launched in 1996 and later acquired by Microsoft are three of the top cloud based email services. No doubt what continues to make email so popular is the ubiquitous standardization. Email can be seamlessly exchanged not only across the three cloud email systems above, but across 1000’s of different consumer and enterprise email systems. Think if it was that easy to move you music from Apple iTunes to Amazon Cloud Player or Google Music Player.

While Microsoft had a slow start in cloud computing except for some consumer services like Hotmail, it’s recent focus leaves no doubt as to Microsoft’s serious plans for the cloud. Microsoft’s cloud platform, Windows Azure wasn’t even launched as a developer platform until October 2008. But what they lacked in head start they have certainly attempted to make up for ever since. Windows Azure is an enterprise cloud platform and no doubt shares technologies with Microsoft consumer cloud services. A great example of Microsoft linking their cloud platform with their consumer products is the new Windows 8 network login. Buy an HP Envy x2 or dozens of other Windows 8 laptops, and one of the first screens you get when you startup the laptop prompts you to create a Windows network login if you don’t already have one. Once you create your Windows network login, all key Windows configurations are stored in the Windows cloud and you get instant access to your desktop configuration whenever you use your network login to sign into any Windows 8 PC. While some devices like Google’s Chromebook have similar features, the Windows 8 network login is one of the most complete I have seen.

On the enterprise side, Windows Azure has made up for a late start as well. As one would expect, Windows Azure is primarily focused on cloud services for Windows, but Microsoft has made a number of moves to attract non-Windows users to the platform. After first going down the road of developing their own “big data” applications, Microsoft relented to the dominance of Hadoop and now supports a 100% Hadoop compatible service on Azure. I find it interesting that Eucalyptus takes the proprietary AWS and make a compatible open source implementation, while Microsoft takes open source Hadoop and implements a compatible proprietary implementation on Azure. Someone will no doubt right an article 10 years from now comparing the success of Azure vs AWS.

To attract another big crowd of open source fans, HPC users, Microsoft recently announced a number of improvements to their Azure HPC services including new compute instances supporting up to 120 GB of memory and 16 cores per node, along with a high speed Infiniband interconnect. Kudos to Microsoft for their Hadoop and HPC services, I can’t wait to see what Azure rolls out in 2013.

Another late comer to the public cloud space is HP. Sometimes not being first has its advantages, and HP’s timing allowed the HP Cloud to take advantage of the OpenStack standard upon which the HP Cloud is built. While OpenStack is by no means the only Cloud standard, it does seem to be gaining momentum and taking the lead in the standards based cloud space. Over time, HP’s cloud business is one of the few that seems well position to play a major role in both consumer and enterprise environments, building on HP’s consumer and enterprise businesses as those customers move to the cloud.

Unless you live in a mythical land like Mordor, there is not likely to be one cloud to rule them all. Public, private, or hybrid, consumer or enterprise focused, the next few years are likely to see many different cloud platforms come and go. But just like the proliferation of networking technologies 30 years ago, today’s cloud landscape is filled with offerings that no doubt will not make it through the decade and it would be well heeded for cloud builders and cloud users to study history. By the end of the decade there isn’t likely to be a lot of remaining clouds that are not based on or at least compatible with the open source cloud standards that are taking shape today.

Update #1
Congratulations to James Cuff on his move to CycleComputing as their new CTO. CycleComputing specializes in software that lets you run large HPC and other types of jobs on clouds like AWS. Speak of a company that could benefit from standards in the cloud space. James will be a great addition to the CycleComputing team and they definitely just moved up a notch in my cloud computing companies to watch.

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About Marc Hamilton

Marc Hamilton – Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Engineering, NVIDIA. At NVIDIA, the Visual Computing Company, Marc leads the worldwide Solutions Architecture and Engineering team, responsible for working with NVIDIA’s customers and partners to deliver the world’s best end to end solutions for professional visualization and design, high performance computing, and big data analytics. Prior to NVIDIA, Marc worked in the Hyperscale Business Unit within HP’s Enterprise Group where he led the HPC team for the Americas region. Marc spent 16 years at Sun Microsystems in HPC and other sales and marketing executive management roles. Marc also worked at TRW developing HPC applications for the US aerospace and defense industry. He has published a number of technical articles and is the author of the book, “Software Development, Building Reliable Systems”. Marc holds a BS degree in Math and Computer Science from UCLA, an MS degree in Electrical Engineering from USC, and is a graduate of the UCLA Executive Management program.
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One Response to History Lessons for Cloud Computing

  1. Russ Wagner says:

    Marc:
    Thanks for the memories. This walk down the cloudy memory lane had me recalling 3Com 3+Share technology (ooh, coax cables and terminators!) which had some traction as file/print network sharing along about the time Novell came out with NetWare.

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