There is a popular argument today that cloud computing is mainframe computing, part deux. In this post, I’m here to refute that argument. While it’s clear that there is overlap here, I’m here to say the two are ultimately very different.
In the old days we had large pieces of hardware in huge rooms. People accessed these mainframes from dumb terminals and could use whatever programs were on there. They tended to be less about day-to-day business than big back-end processes and they weren’t typically in reach of every user in the company the way PCs are today. In some organizations people paid for their access to the computer system, which is similar to the private cloud model today, but there are, as we shall see, important differences.
Today we have the concept of the cloud where users can access a set of services that sit on a group of Intel-based servers. It’s not the same as Mainframe-dumb or client-server. Yes, people pay for the services in a similar fashion as they did with mainframes back in the day, but that’s where the similarity ends. Instead of huge hulking computers on the back end, we have low-cost PC servers. On the software side we have agile web-based applications. On the client side we still have independent PCs capable of operating in the cloud system or locally depending on the needs of the user, far different from that dumb terminal we were using back in the day.
Private Cloud computing consists of a set of pre-defined services created by IT to make it easy for end users to grab what they need without IT intervention. Last year at the MIT CIO Conference, I watched a panel on cloud computing which included Rear Admiral Elizabeth Hight, vice director of the Defense Information Agency. As I wrote at that time on DaniWeb:
“Hight explained how the military has set up a flexible set of cloud services that enables people in the field to set up and break down a project very quickly, a must in a military situation. Hight said they have a secure system and they are able to provide their constituents what they need on the fly.”
I don’t think anyone would have described the old Mainframe computer environment as flexible, but Hight said the way they were able to make this work — while in a sensitive military situation, mind you — was to provide a defined set of services that were simple to access, select and use. What’s more, since the individuals who used these services were being billed for exactly what they used–they actually had a credit card system–they made darn sure they closed their project when it was over so they wouldn’t be paying for services they weren’t using.
So while it’s popular to portray cloud computing as just modernized mainframing, I don’t think it’s nearly as simple as that. In fact, the cloud is much more efficient, elegant and user-oriented than those mainframes ever were.