In the Cloud, or on the ground?  A short History of Cloud Computing.

Church & Clouds

One hears the term “Cloud Computing” and related phrases a lot these days.  Probably too much – as with a lot of catchy phrases, the marketing machine has picked the phrase up and boldly applied it where no phrase was meant to go.  Quite frankly, “cloud” is now one of the most used and abused terms in the Technology space – much of what is claimed as cloud quite simply isn’t.

So, what is Cloud Computing supposed to be?

The answer is wrapped up in the history of computing development.  Initially, computers were standalone devices without connection to other computing devices – any application you needed had to be physically installed on the computer.  Then in the seventies and eighties, the computer network flourished.  Applications from other computers could now be accessed, at least at the Local Area scale.  A whole generation of special computers were developed – called servers – whose main function was to make applications and data available to other computers- client computers – on a local network.  In the meantime, the Internet developed and became widely accessible.  The basis of the internet was that it was a network that connected local networks according to a set of relatively immutable rules (inexplicably called Request for Comments or RFCs for short).

Consequently, Network Engineers became increasingly focused on what needed to happen at the local part of the equation, so in diagrams of network systems, it became accepted practice to draw the Internet part as a cloud.  The engineers needed to document that the internet existed but didn’t need to concern themselves with the details of how it happened.  Rule of thumb for good system architecture became to provide a good Local Area Network with all the resources it needed – application servers, storage etc.  These could communicate with other Local Networks if needed for coordination and some degree of sharing, but basically, all networks provided all their own resources

However, over time the capabilities of computers, networks, communication links and servers have increased exponentially.  One day, some bright young spark said: “Instead of duplicating all this Application stuff in every local network, why don’t we move it to the cloud and share it between local networks?”  And so, cloud computing was born.

There is one further piece to the puzzle though.  This cloud way of operating was fine if you were a large, enterprise scale entity and could afford the up-front investment in physical infrastructure and make sure that the infrastructure was properly maintained.  If not, you probably still had to do things the old way.  The other piece of the puzzle is a business model initiative rather than a technology change.  Software vendors started making software available in the cloud on a “rental” basis instead of a lump-sum, lifetime license.  In essence, they started renting you the software bundled with the cloud-based server to run it on, the technical support and physical support to keep the server running.  All you needed to do was provide a device and the communication services to access the server.  This model is called Software as a Service (SaaS).  Today, the phrase “cloud computing” usually means some form of software or application delivery from cloud-located servers on a SaaS model.  And it is not limited to commercial software offerings – the church nationally could commission custom applications that use this model.  The recently announced Methodist App is an example of this approach.

Enough History; What does this mean for the church?

There are several important benefits of this approach, but for me, one of the best benefits for a geographically distributed organisation like the church is that it the advantages of large-scale information systems and communication systems can now be relatively easily applied at a congregation level, without needing to rely on locally-based skilled support persons.  While there are still some issues that need consideration, there is now no reason why a congregation of 10 should have any different facilities that a congregation of 1000.  So, get thinking about the innovative things we can do with this resource!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *