When ever I hear about or read about cloud computing, the images of massive mainframes and their connected terminals all over the place. The reason is simple: as a kid growing up in the 80’s, these were pretty much the computers I knew of based on what I saw at banks and airport check-in counters. In fact, these were still around McGill’s campus in Montreal when I started my undergrad studies in the late 90’s (and not so long ago…right?).
In many ways, I find there are many parallels between mainframe and cloud computing. A computer terminal of yesterday is much like the thin clients of today that depend on a host computer, such as a mainframe, for it’s processing power. This is known as the client-server model. In many ways, this is pretty much how search engines work: you use a terminal to enter a query and somewhere remotely a very complex operation takes place to deliver search results.
So, what has changed? Well, with almost 30 years of advances in the internet and telecommunications, increasing computer power and all at falling prices, the old mainframe and “dumb” terminals I remember from my youth now seem like something from the stone age. For one thing, the thin clients of today are smarter and aren’t always tethered to a single mainframe (nor with with really long cables).
What are the differences?
Now we have internet and wireless communications across an array of devices including PCs, tablets and mobile phones and also wearables, appliances and even vehicles–the so called internet of things. It goes without saying that these devices are also much more powerful than even 10 years ago and can perform a range of tasks on their own. Another significant factor driving the cloud revolution is that the speed, availability and price of appropriate connectivity is where it needs to be. Heck, I can now get 6 GB of fast mobile data access a month for under $20!
On the mainframe side, well, there isn’t a single mainframe anymore. (Have you ever seen one of these? I got a glimpse of one at a bank I worked at before joining SAP and it looked more like a car wash for golf carts than a computer.) A cloud computing server can be scattered across many individual servers, which offers more flexibility in adding or removing scale as needed quickly and cheaply in a model similar to utility services.
Security, however, is a bigger concern. Mainframes tended to operate on closed systems with those really long cables I mentioned. Now, with just about everything going over the internet, there are risks of being compromised by intruders all along the way. Just think of all the possible interception risks possible between my Facebook status update over wifi through the local ISP, along undersea cables, across countless internet switches in multiple countries and finally into a server I don’t even know where. This is why security is such an important topic and at the top of agenda for cloud computing service providers.
So, in the end, there are similarities but we obviously can do a hell of a lot more from even more places now more than ever before.