The Curious Case of Cloud Computing

curious_caseThis Friday Erick Schonfeld and I are moderating the TechCrunch Cloud Computing Roundtable at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus. Several participants have asked us what questions we’re going to ask. Of course, the whole idea of events like this one is to bring together as many of the movers and shakers as we can fit onto the stage, and then let the dynamics of the group shape the discussion. Besides, there’s nothing worse than journalists asked canned questions and getting back prepared answers.

So we won’t be sharing our questions until show time. But they’re really not that hard to suss, if we pause and consider what cloud computing represents today, tomorrow, and in the future when we drop the cloud and just call it what we do. The vision of cloud computing has been around for a long time, going by a succession of names that reflects the emergence of the massive uber computer that the Net has engendered.

With all the hype about cloud computing, you’d think we’re in the early stages of this revolution, with many years to go before the technology is mature enough for prime time. But in fact, the first instantiation of a working cloud application (and by implication a supporting platform) came with the beta launch of Gmail in 2005. My first email on the platform (which is still available to me by clicking the Oldest link) was May 2, 2005.

Gmail was launched with a social media strategy that foreshadowed the current wave of cloud evolution, with a core group of influencers and insiders each given a handful of invites with which to “friend” people. The on-demand service also featured a scalable storage model where the available size automagically grew whenever you approached the apparent limit. And the initial inability to delete items encouraged a new usage model that was continually reinforced by feature additions that took advantage of the disruptive model.

The dynamic threading of conversations pushed items of timely interest to the top of the stack. The merging of chat threads into the common archive made searching all the more authoritative and valuable, and all the harder to switch away from. The elasticity and just in time scalability of cloud computing became a staple for those who stopped by for a taste and ended up staying the night.

Behind the scenes, Google was leveraging the cloud they’d built to support search and the page rank crawl that informed its relevance engine. With Gmail as a proof of concept, Google Docs as a tactical shiv into the Office gut, and Firefox as the wedge to keep IE pinned down, the stage was set for the first clone of Google’s cloud-as-a-service: Amazon Web Services. AWS time-shared the Amazon infrastructure, harnessing LAMP developers to prototype and scale startups into position via the same social media viral spread Gmail used.

Now the cloud model began to metastasize, as social media juggernauts had the fuel to escape the gravitational pull of the incumbent platform vendors and rapidly build out identity clouds. The resultant aristocracy of Facebook, Twitter, and Gmail/Apps/Reader/Salesforce brought Microsoft into the game with Mesh, Azure, and the nextgen Silverlight rich media platform. Apple, the iPhone, and the AppStore completed the the picture.

Ironically, it’s Microsoft’s Hailstorm which first modeled today’s landscape almost 10 years ago, with the on-demand atomization of the InBox, the social graph (contacts), and the realtime inference engine now known as search. Identity, the very thing that brought down Hailstorm, is now being traded like a virtual stock market by the social media clouds as a new form of wealth. The more agile the social graph, the greater power the social clouds have to leverage the commoditization of cloud computing to rapidly adapt and scale.

Just as the economic crisis is a global phenomenon, so too is the cloud. If the network is the computer, then soon the network of clouds is the Cloud. Short term, cloud computing will slip in as a cost-saving rationale. Near term, the social clouds will expand across workgroups, across business domains, and finally cross-cloud. Then the Golden Age of the Cloud will occur, where applications and services only possible in that environment will guide the next wave of business architecture.

On Friday, the dialogue will be about when, not if. When did cloud computing begin? How far are we into the cycle? Is cloud computing a baby or an old man in diapers, and are we going backwards or forwards so fast that we can’t tell the difference? Or are we and cloud computing meeting in middle age, each ready for the other?