Sunday, October 18, 2020

A brief history of cloud computing (part 1)

 The technical fields, technical terms and technical products surrounding cloud computing are dazzling. At the beginning of cloud computing, the application development environment was not fundamentally different from the past. At that time, there were so-called full-stack engineers, which meant that one person could handle the entire application software without considering the development cycle. Today, this title is no longer true. Few people or even an enterprise can fully grasp all the technology stacks related to cloud computing. They may use some of the results completed by others, combined with some of their own proprietary experience, to form a competitive product in a certain market segment, or to deliver the desired output for customers.

Even as a pure user, it is much more difficult than in the past to fully understand the technologies related to cloud computing, to achieve a reasonable structure, appropriate selection, and to successfully complete the entire process of integrated development and deployment. It used to be expensive. Frankly speaking, under the current competition for talents, companies in general industries, even if they have an information department, are unlikely to independently manage such complex development facilities. They will have to rely extensively on the services provided by cloud computing platforms. This brings new market opportunities for solution providers in the software industry. Whoever can provide a friendly application development and deployment environment for digitally transformed enterprises will be able to acquire and retain customers.

This article is mainly aimed at technical and non-technical managers of large and medium-sized enterprises. By depicting the development process of cloud computing technology and market fields, I introduce key technologies and market milestones, including core open source projects under different technology domains, so that companies can have a comprehensive understanding of cloud computing development history and related technology domains. With a comprehensive understanding, it will be easier for you to see how your company should use cloud computing, and where are the possible market opportunities and challenges in the future?

This article is inspired by the book Digital Transformation published by Tom Siebel in 2019, but I try to combine the actual situation of the Chinese market to explain it in a simple manner.

The formation and structure of the cloud computing market

Today, we can enjoy economic and convenient cloud computing services, mainly from two driving forces, one is the virtualization technology of computing resources, and the other is the effect of economies of scale. The former originated from the Hypervisor virtualization software launched by VMWare after 2000. It no longer relies on a parent operating system and allows users to divide hardware and network resources into multiple units, thereby realizing pooling, sharing and on-demand scheduling of computing resources .

In 2006, Amazon launched the S3 object storage service and SQS simple queue service, creating a precedent for public cloud computing services. Since then, Microsoft, IBM, Google, China's Ali, Tencent, and Huawei have all joined the public cloud service market, and the services provided have expanded from basic computing resources to databases, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things. At present, this industry has grown into a huge market with annual revenue of 250 billion US dollars.

In the course of more than ten years of development, of course, many companies, products and services have appeared, but in summary, the emergence of these things is basically proceeding along two obvious routes:

(1) Trend 1: From infrastructure, to applications, to application-related platform services.

Basic Cloud (Infrastructure as a Service)

The earliest cloud computing service is the most basic cloud host (Virtual Machine). The service provider installs the bare metal on the Hypervisor, divides the computing and network resources into blocks, and then sells it. Subsequently, the basic services were split into several important basic cloud products such as host, storage, network, database, and security, allowing users to flexibly combine and realize flexible billing (currently most foreign basic cloud vendors provide minute-by-minute calculations). Storage can be billed monthly. For example, the standard monthly storage fee per GB of data for AWS S3 service is $0.0125, while the monthly fee per GB for deep archive storage can be as low as $0.001 per GB).

We generally refer to host, storage, network, database and security-related computing services collectively as basic cloud services. On top of these services, developers need to complete all the technology stack construction, build their own data architecture, develop coding, deploy operation and maintenance, and finally realize cloud applications. Most of the first-generation cloud computing customers are Internet companies. They are not the ultimate consumers of cloud services, but producers.

A brief history of cloud computing (part 1)

Application as a Service (Software as a Service)

Another company that started almost at the same time as Amazon Web Services, Dropbox, is a startup that provides file storage and sharing services for individuals and teams. Catch up with AWS when it started, Dropbox directly used AWS's off-the-shelf S3 object storage service, which gave a startup with a small team the opportunity to focus on application development and marketing, allowing Dropbox to pass just a few years Time has developed into the number one file sharing application in the market. Most of the big-ticket SaaS companies similar to Dropbox also appeared in the following ten years. They all used the services of the cloud computing platform instead of building their own infrastructure. This also includes a super user "Netflix" (Netflix), whose downstream traffic accounts for 15% of the entire Internet downstream traffic, and is also a customer of AWS.

The Mingdao collaborative application we founded was born in 2011, which coincided with the year when China's cloud computing platform started, so we also avoided a lot of infrastructure construction work. Broadly speaking, the earliest cloud services appeared before the basic cloud company. Salesforce, founded in 1999, is a typical SaaS company, but there was no such industry term back then. In 2016, it is said that Salesforce has also become a customer of AWS. Because of the existence of SaaS service form, cloud computing can indirectly provide services to a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises and non-Internet industry enterprises. Today, almost all enterprises use some SaaS services more or less.

The first wave of cloud computing market development was mainly driven by Internet enterprise users. They have relatively complete development and self-service operation and maintenance capabilities, and they also have increasing usage, making them the most ideal customer group for basic cloud services. To this day, the main customer groups of Alibaba Cloud and Tencent Cloud are still the pan-Internet industry.

SaaS companies are important promoters of cloud computing basic services. Although this category contributes much less economic value compared with 2C network services, they are well versed in the needs of the enterprise market and promote the application development environment of cloud computing platforms. Growing maturity. This is the next step in the trend: platform as a service.

(Development) Platform as a Service (Platform as a Service)

The so-called platform as a service, specifically refers to the development platform. When application development work is migrated from local to cloud, it is natural to provide corresponding better solutions in the cloud computing environment. Therefore, the traditional middleware market in the past has undergone changes one after another, and one by one is converted to a certain service on the cloud computing platform. The more common development platform services include:

Communication: provide services such as audio and video communication, message push, SMS, email, etc.

Geographic information: provide services related to maps, positioning and navigation

Application development framework: Provide application development environment and runtime environment

Media services: provide encoding, processing and storage services for media files such as pictures, audio and video

Machine learning framework: Provide machine learning data annotation and model training platform for AI application developers

Sending a verification code short message is also a PaaS service.

As a PaaS service, it is mainly for developers, so in addition to functional services, PaaS vendors should also provide development-friendly peripheral capabilities, such as flexible expansion capabilities, debugging and control permissions capabilities, etc. The more developers involved, the more opportunities for improvement and the lower the average cost of a PaaS service.

Is PaaS service necessarily provided by independent PaaS vendors? Not necessarily. In fact, mainstream PaaS services are mostly covered by IaaS companies. If you open Alibaba Cloud's product list, among hundreds of products, you will find that basic cloud services are only one category, and the other dozen categories are all services related to the development environment. This means that if a startup company wants to independently become a successful PaaS vendor, it needs to be executed very focused, and the product has a clear technological lead. Once this is done, there is no need to worry about competition with basic cloud companies, because I will talk about the technological development of the cloud computing market later. There are already many technological trends that guarantee the unique advantages of independent PaaS companies in establishing cross-cloud services.

The above is a context in the development of cloud computing services in the past fifteen years, from basic cloud to application symbiosis, to the increasingly rich development platform as a service. Cloud computing covers more and more users, relying on these three levels of services to complement each other.

(2) Trend 2: From public cloud, private cloud to hybrid cloud, to multi-cloud

The second thread relates to the deployment model of cloud computing services (Deployment Model). When the concept of cloud computing was proposed, it clearly referred to public cloud services. Customers do not need to maintain any infrastructure, and they can directly use cloud computing resources like hydropower and coal. But there is always a gap between the reality of business and the ideals of technology companies. Whether cloud computing is a technology or a service, there has been a lack of consensus for a long time.

Before the opening of cloud computing services, many large enterprises and organizations had their own servers. In 2010, the global server market was worth US$50 billion, and most of these servers were sold to enterprises and governments. Enterprises have these infrastructures, should they spend money on public cloud services? Since cloud computing technology is so good, why should I implement it myself? Customers in the government, finance, and pharmaceutical industries are even more unlikely to adopt public cloud computing services without hesitation in the early days of their birth. They have various so-called compliance requirements.

Private Cloud (Private Cloud)

Sure enough, there is demand and supply. In 2010, Rackspace and NASA published an open source project group called OpenStack. It contains a series of open source software used to build cloud computing services. This means that all users with hardware infrastructure can achieve a technical architecture similar to AWS at a very low cost. Rackspace is an IDC company, and its motivation to do so is obviously very strong. It believes that as long as it helps customers solve the virtualization problem, its own hosting business can also thrive.

Although the software is open source and free, cloud computing-related expertise is still required to implement Open Stack. Therefore, since 2010, there have been many service providers based on OpenStack to help enterprises build private clouds. In China, public cloud service providers have even provided such services. Ten years later, this private cloud trend brought by OpenStack has basically come to an end. Except for a very small number of large users who can afford to maintain their own independent cloud computing platform economically, the vast majority of users simply cannot get economically reasonable returns. Virtualization is only a technical prerequisite for cloud computing services, but not all of its value. Private cloud solutions can never take advantage of flexible resource utilization (large or small) and true economies of scale, unless users are not concerned about economic rationality.

A brief history of cloud computing (part 1)

In the Chinese market, key industries may still be unable to use commercial cloud services, but telecom operators and some national technology companies have also established various industry clouds with the help of public cloud service providers. For example, Mobile Cloud, Unicom Cloud and Telecom Tianyi Cloud are all formed in this way. They provide public cloud services for key industries such as finance, government, transportation, and education.

At this point in the story, it seems that the public cloud has won a big victory. However, business reality is back. In the increasingly homogeneous cloud computing service market, do customers have no bargaining power at all? If customer needs cannot be met, there are always suppliers willing to innovate. So Hybrid Cloud (Hybrid Cloud) came out.

Hybrid Cloud (Hybrid Cloud)

In fact, hybrid cloud is not a unique cloud computing technology, it is essentially a set of communication services. As long as a pile of good enough network equipment and extravagant private line connections, computing equipment anywhere in the world can form a high-speed private network. Even if the client's budget is limited, as long as the requirements for security and connectivity are not so high, they can build an economical VPN network by themselves. The technology around building a hybrid cloud through commercial network connections is called "SD-WAN" (Software Defined Wide Area Network). With a network connection, it is possible to connect customer-owned computing facilities and public cloud computing facilities together, which is called "hybrid cloud".

The benefits of hybrid cloud to customers are obvious. First of all, every enterprise may have basic cloud computing usage, but there may also be short-term surge in demand. With hybrid cloud, customers can purchase their own IT assets based on their own basic usage and operate private clouds themselves, while short-term fluctuations can be met through public cloud services. After the peak demand has passed, this part of the expenditure can be removed . Enterprises can also keep basic cloud services that are less difficult to operate and maintain in their own facilities, while at the same time using complex computing services provided by public clouds, such as machine learning platforms. Dropbox is a large-scale SaaS application. It has made major structural adjustments in 2016. Most services no longer use AWS's public cloud, saving $70 million in annual cloud computing expenses in one fell swoop.

The hybrid cloud strategy has now received dual support from vendors and customers. It puts an end to the black-and-white dispute between public and private clouds and makes the entire IT industry more pragmatic. Many business opportunities have also been born in this. Leading cloud computing vendors such as Microsoft, Amazon, IBM, and Google have all launched their own hybrid cloud solutions. Because of the mainstreaming of hybrid cloud solutions, the competition among cloud computing vendors has begun to shift from the cost of basic cloud resources to the application development ecosystem. Because under the hybrid cloud architecture, customers face new challenges in how to plan for smooth data connections and how to quickly deliver cloud-native applications. Therefore, the ultimate competition in cloud computing is not hardware or software competition, but the competition in the application development and deployment (AD&D) environment.


The concept of multi-cloud is a concept that has emerged in the cloud computing market in recent years. It treats all cloud computing platforms and customers' private cloud facilities as general infrastructure. All applications run consistently and reliably on all clouds. Multi-cloud solutions not only need to be coordinated by infrastructure providers, but more importantly, application development and deployment must be oriented towards the goal of multi-cloud operation.

In 2013, Y Combinator incubator Docker Inc open sourced the Docker project. It becomes an important prerequisite for cross-cloud deployment of applications. Docker allows users to package complex applications, data, and dependent environments, including the operating system itself, into a "container", which can run consistently in any computing environment through a standard Docker engine. With this technology, transferring an application system from Alibaba Cloud to Tencent Cloud is as simple as transferring a file. There is no boundary between cloud and cloud. Why do Windows and mac OS applications are never compatible, while cloud computing vendors watch these things happen? Very simple, because the entire cloud computing technology ecosystem is built on open source software, no matter how big Amazon is, it is only a service provider and it collects rent. On the other hand, customers increasingly value autonomy and controllability. They do not want to be locked in by a single cloud computing company. After all, their customers and transaction data are all running on cloud computing, which is the lifeblood of all enterprises.

A brief history of cloud computing (part 1)

In 2015, Google open sourced the Kubernates project to make multi-cloud solutions even better. K8S can automatically orchestrate the creation and expansion of containers. This means that no matter how complex the application is, it can perform unified operation and maintenance in a multi-cloud environment. For example, if a certain type of storage is used up, you can temporarily buy some Amazon storage. When the data is out of date, it is automatically transferred to low-price cold storage services on a regular basis.

With the multi-cloud technology framework and services, it also means that the cloud computing platform must provide extensive support. Alibaba Cloud certainly hopes to sell more cloud hosting services, but if the technical framework is backward, customers will be lost. Therefore, cloud computing platforms around the world are currently unhesitating to support the multi-cloud strategy, hoping to continue to exist as a professional service provider in this process.

The multi-cloud strategy has a great impact on application developers. First of all, developers must plan according to the cloud computing environment from the first day, support multi-cloud deployment, auto-scaling, and adopt microservice architecture to implement container deployment. Secondly, application developers can also benefit from such an architecture. Because it allows customers to obtain proprietary software as simple as applying SaaS, the only difference is that applications and data run in a customer-controlled computing environment, but the software itself is based on a single code base (Single Code Base). Our Mingdao Cloud was originally a SaaS application. Customers only need to register on to use it. Now, through container technology, our customers can also install and upgrade in their own cloud computing environment. These all depend on the multi-cloud technology architecture.

Earlier we mentioned that the competition of cloud computing companies will migrate to the application development and deployment environment. So what does it specifically refer to? It is about four technical areas surrounding cloud computing. Tom Siebel summed up them as cloud computing itself, big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. In the first part of this article, I have introduced the technological evolution related to cloud computing itself. In the subsequent serials, I will introduce the history of the other three technical fields and their mutual relationship with cloud computing today.

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