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By Graeme Philipson

The IT industry is as given to fashion and fad as any other part of business. Probably more so – we are constantly bombarded with new technologies and new words and phrases to describe them.

Very few of these terms have a precise definition. Many of them originate in the marketing departments of the major vendors, others are invented by journalists or analysts. By the time they reach the user community they have usually become loose code words to describe a group of technologies or practices.

So it is with cloud computing. It is the hottest buzzword in IT today. But, unlike many shooting stars, cloud computing is important, and it is here to stay.

You won’t find a firm description of the term anywhere. As the old joke has it, cloud computing is like pornography – you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

Years ago, and still often today, a cartoon cloud was often used to represent the Internet in diagrams of computer architectures. Cloud computing is nothing more or less than “the delivery of computing and storage capacity as a service to a community of end recipients” (that definition straight from Wikipedia, the cloud encyclopedia).

Cloud computing is significant because it encapsulates a range of different technologies that have developed through the history of commercial computing. It is an important evolutionary step. The rise of the Internet, increasing bandwidth at the desktop and on the backbone, the movement towards outsourcing, the development of a service oriented architecture (SOA, another buzzword), mobile and wireless computing – all are part of the cloud computing revolution.

In the 1960s, Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy made the famous statement that “the network is the computer”, which became the company’s slogan. It describes cloud computing perfectly. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where processing occurs or where data is stored, so long as you have it when you need it.

Of course, Sun doesn’t exist anymore. It was acquired by Oracle in 2010. Oracle’s Larry Ellison championed the idea of the “network computer”, or NC, in the 1990s. The NC was a device that would store all its data and applications on the Internet, performing only limited activity locally. It didn’t take off, mainly because bandwidth was too limited to shunt large amounts of data around, but the concept lives on in today’s tablet computers.

I remember the client/server boom of twenty years ago. Many IT managers told me that they would never move to client/server. I remember telling them that every time they upgraded their hardware of software they were moving in that direction, and that one day they would wake up and find that they were running a client/server shop.

So it is with cloud computing. Resistance is futile. We are all moving, inexorably and incrementally, in that direction. As Canadian cyberpunk author William Gibson said nearly 20 years ago, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

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