Friday, June 19, 2009

Cloud Computing - all that's old is new again

Cloud computing is the buzzword du jour. What amazes me most is how little people realize that it's nothing new.

From about 1978 until ultimate cancellation in 1986, AT&T ran a project called "Net 1000" (codename: ACS or Advanced Computing System). This was the first product AT&T released as part of the deregulatory process.

Managing projects in telecommunication services by Mostafa Hashem Sherif describes Net 1000 as follows: "The service consisted in providing customers with the capacity to develop, install, and manage applications software to run on AT&T's owned processors. The architecture was based on having a large number (100-200) of dispersed data centers (caled "service points"). These were interconnected using an X.25 packet switched network from the regulated part of AT&T. Initially, data centers were built in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Greensboro, Salt Lake City, Camden, Kansas City, and San Antonio [...] A Network Operations Center was constructed in Somerset, NJ. [...] The idea of Net 1000 was for users to pay for what they use. They wer charged for network terminations (ports), disk storage, transmission bandwidth, connection time, and communications process." (Page 79)

Sherif continues on page 81 that problems with the business included "the absence of application software and overlook[ing] the time needed to develop, test, and deploy software applications, particularly in a new operating environment."

Later on, AT&T changed the direction for Net 1000, and it ceased to be an application hosting infrastructure. But that's another story.

AT&T lost more than $1B on Net 1000. Yes, that's billion.

Certainly there are significant differences between cloud computing and Net 1000 - AT&T was trying to sell both the network communications and the applications platform, while cloud vendors are using the existing network infrastructure. And of course computer equipment is much cheaper - at the time I worked on Net 1000, the VAX 11/780 computers used as the application hosting platforms cost about $200,000 each, and operated at a speed comparable to about 1 MHz (vs. 2+GHz for a typical laptop today). Databases are a lot more mature too - the Net 1000 product was built on a DBMS called "Seed", which I think was written in FORTRAN, with a COBOL layer built on top of that. (We looked at a startup called Oracle but their products weren't mature enough to use for a nationwide offering!)

I'm not predicting that cloud computing will go the way of Net 1000. Just saying that all that's old is new again.


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