The Internet Cloud seems like a palatable, abstract concept that somehow holds data, or bits, much like how real clouds hold molecules of water. The clouds then precipitate data to our devices, pretty much the same way that real clouds precipitate rain.
In the early 1990s, Ian Foster and Carl Kesselman came up with a new concept of “The Grid”. The analogy used was of the electricity grid where users could plug into the grid and use a metered utility service. If companies don’t have their own power stations, but rather access a third party electricity supply, why can’t the same apply to computing resources? Plug into a grid of computers and pay for what you use.
One of the first milestones for cloud computing was the arrival of Salesforce.com in 1999, which pioneered the concept of delivering enterprise applications via a simple website. The services firm paved a way for both specialist and mainstream software firms to deliver applications over the internet.
The next development was Amazon Web Services in 2002, which provided a suite of cloud-based services including storage, computation and even human intelligence through the Amazon Mechanical Turk.
According to Rebecca J. Rosen’s article Clouds: The Most Useful Metaphor of All Time?” . . . when engineers would map out all the various components of their networks, but then loosely sketch the unknown networks (like the Internet) theirs was hooked into. What does a rough blob of undefined nodes look like? A cloud. And, helpfully, clouds are something that takes little skill to draw. It’s a squiggly line formed into a rough ellipse. Over time, clouds were adopted as the stand-in image for the part of a computer or telephone network outside one’s own.”
Clouds get traction as a metaphor because they are shape-shifters, literally. As a result, they can stand in for many varied cultural tropes. Want something to represent the one thing marring your otherwise perfect situation? Done. Want to evoke the nostalgic feeling of childhood games of the imagination? Done. Maybe you want to draw a picture of heaven? You’re in luck. Clouds as metaphors pepper our language: every cloud has a silver lining, I’m on cloud nine, his head is in the clouds, there are dark clouds on the horizon. Clouds are the lazy man’s metaphor, a one-image-fits-all solution for your metaphor needs.
So there is a shift, not only in terminology but also in perception. The problem with using the word “Cloud” is that it is perceived as a harmless, abstract repository that effectively hides massive physical infrastructures and the associated thermo-cultures, energy expenses, and waste management practices. The materiality and physicality of cloud systems are manifested in the form of data centers that eat up to 200 terawatt-hours (TWh) each year. Further aggravating this trend is the fact that these data centers actually utilize only 6-12% of the total power consumption, the rest being reserved for traffic surges, crashes and redundancy ie. to make services faster, reduce errors and improve consistency.
Considering these points, one has to wonder what would today’s energy and data consumption scenario looks like if we had stuck to the term ‘Grid’ to denote modern data storage and distribution.
Ameya Chikramane, 4.3.2020