Thursday, October 17, 2019

A brief history of the cloud

Our industry is undergoing a sea change. Entire service categories where network operators had a leading position have shifted to new entrants.

It started with app stores and social networks for portals, then skype for voice , then WhatsApp for messaging, then Netflix for video…

Each of these disruptions have been the product of ambitious digital services strategy, coupled with technological advances that left previous generations instantly obsolete.

Economic population disparities have also been an important trend to consider. Whereas in the past, a large portion of the population wanted a robust, reliable service, we have seen market segments that used to be marginal emerge in strength where affordability has become more important than reliability.

The "best in class", no longer affordable for most, has shifted to "good enough" but free or inexpensive for many.

The new digital companies, unencumbered by analog technology legacy, started discovering new ways to scale up explosively IP infrastructure to sustain their growth.

The webscalers were born, and with them, the idea that infrastructure does not have to be dedicated to a single purpose or service but can be shared across services and geographies. This came from the observation that adding order of magnitudes of capacity per year was impractical, slow and costly with legacy networking.

Legacy networking was assembled of specialized appliances, dedicated to a single purpose, integrated into a coherent but rigid network topology. It was reliable but not efficient, stable but complex.

The first breakthrough was to use commercial of the shelf hardware. Unspecialized servers, which could make up from the lack of relative performance compared to specialized appliances with a much cheaper price point. If a server is 3x less efficient than an appliance, but 10x cheaper, it is an easy calculation. Moore's law accelerated this shift tremendously.

But, with more servers and physical elements came more operational complexity. The second breakthrough was to remove and centralize the management of each of these servers. Whereas in the past, it was necessary to physically access each server to configure it, troubleshoot it, the new method allowed to remotely access any server in any network, and furthermore to provide a consolidated, centralized view of the physical attributes and health of a whole network, from a single web portal. Beyond simple monitoring, increasingly sophisticated management routines were built in, to deploy, manage, scale programs remotely.

The ability to manage software remotely meant not only that the network manager didn’t need any longer to be physically where the data center was, but also that it was possible to decentralize and deploy several data centers in different geographies and manage them remotely. The cloud was born.