One of the most trending techie words these days is “the cloud.” Most people have a vague idea of this sort of ethereal method of storage, although the jargon can be somewhat misleading.
Colloquially, “cloud storage” and “online storage” are generally equivalents. Technically, though, the cloud is just one kind of online data storage. So before we revisit the impressive line of inventions and upgrades that led us to a wealth of easy, inexpensive online storage options, let’s quickly review the end goal product.
What is the cloud?
Put simply, the cloud allows users to safely store information and data remotely with the ability to access the data through the Internet. This means you can store a file on a hosted server so you can retrieve the file from any other Internet-enabled device. But we couldn’t make it that simple, could we?
Your technophiles may be quick to point out that this is truly the definition of the broader category of online storage. The cloud, in contrast, requires a more specific service that is sold directly on user demand, contains self-service functionality, and allows users to choose the amount of storage they want.
So with the nitty gritty out of the way, we’ll say that most people are talking about true cloud storage, making the terms acceptably interchangeable.
What’s in a name?
Well, here you’ll find a quite interesting debate, since there’s no real agreement on when the cloud was truly invented or when the term cloud actually came about. We do know that a similar concept had been theorized by Western Union as early as 1965, but their work stopped while still on paper. Techies who worked in the computer industry in the 70s recall “cloud” being thrown around in reference to network diagrams, which were often drawn out on paper with cloud-like shapes representing WANs, or Wide Area Networks. In fact, some of these insiders later began referring to the entire Internet as a “cloud” of sorts.
Still, it seems the first advertised use of an actual “cloud” service was in 1994, but for various reasons—perhaps it was just too ahead of its own time—the first cloud dissipated. There are others who say the term did not really come into being until 1997, when Ramnath Chellapa referenced the idea of “cloud computing.”
Wherever the term came from, we can probably all agree that it’s very apropos for today’s usage of the word “cloud” as which we know is out there somewhere.
History of Data Storage
When we talk about the history of the cloud or online storage, many people would go back to the early 2000s, maybe even the 90s. But to truly appreciate how far we’ve come, we can trace the technology back as far as the late nineteenth century. Without the brilliant minds of discoverers hundreds of years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to progressively build upon data storage technologies that brought us to modern day online storage.
18th & 19th Century – Bouchon & Bain – The Punch Card
The first known form of data storage was invented in 1725 by Frenchman Basile Bouchon. He invented a way to record data to control the weaving patterns of loom using a big loop of paper with precisely punched holes. With further improvements by other inventors, these semi-automated looms sold very modestly. By 1805, Joseph-Marie Jacquard’s full automation version completely revolutionized the textile industry using a series of punched cards.
In 1846, Scottish clockmaker Alexander Bain invented “ticker tape” that made transmission of telegraphs impressively fast. This style of punched tape would continue to be used as the nascent technology of mid-twentieth century computers required more and more data storage capabilities.
The punch cards became synonymous with the data processing industry, which used keypunch machines as very primitive computers. One of the first leaders in these “unit record machines” was the International Businesses Machines Corporation, otherwise known to this day as IBM.
Punch cards hadn’t gone away entirely despite being mostly replaced with electronic computers toward the latter third of the 20th century. They were widely used as late as 2004 in the U.S. Presidential election.
1877 – Thomas Edison, et al. – Recorded Sound & Video
On August 12, 1877, Thomas Edison spoke the first words ever recorded: “Mary had a little lamb.” His phonograph prototype, much to the country’s surprise, actually worked. A decade later, he set out to “do for the Eye what the phonograph did for the Ear.” Edison and his team combined the work of inventors around the world, including Americans Thomas Armat and Francis Jenkins and the Lumiere brothers from France. The integration of these various new discoveries led to the first motion picture film, and by 1894 New York City became home to the first movie theater—although it was then known as a kinetoscope parlor.
So it was Thomas Edison who played a major role in the first storage of audio and video data.
1951 –Eckert & Mauchly- The Magnetic Tape
Although magnetic tape has its roots as far back as 1898, its computer data application did not begin until 1951. It was initially used with the UNIVAC I, the first electronic computer to compete against the punch card computers. This “UNIversal Automatic Computer” was designed by American electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert and American physicist John Mauchly. Just one year later, their fifth UNIVAC system became well-known for its accurate prediction of the 1952 U.S. Presidential election using just 1% of reporting precincts.
Just twenty years later, IBM had established a big player in the history of data storage. Their work to integrate magnetic tape in thin, portable casings led to the first floppy disks in 1971. Although this original version was rather larger at 8 inches, the inexpensive and large capacity data storage made the floppy disks’ heyday last an impressive 40 years. Each new generation of floppies became smaller while being able to hold more data, which made the disks especially appealing to personal computer owners.
1956 – IBM – The Hard Drive
The ancestor of today’s hard drive was designed with businesses in mind. Growing companies needed a way to track accounting in real time, and the IBM 350 “disk storage unit” was born. It was able to store a whopping 3.75 MB of information and to transfer up to 8,800 characters per second across 50 2-foot diameter disks. All in all, this first ever hard drive and its accompanying computer components could be had for only $3,200 per month.
Interestingly, IBM almost cancelled the production of the IBM 350 because it threatened the company’s other leading data storage technology: the punch card. Luckily for us, IBM chose progress over the risk of losing profits.
The real problem, however, was that the portable storage that would become available in the following decades did not allow real-time or remote access. Cassette tapes, CDs, hard drives and even USB flash drives did much to advance on-site data storage. But the key element of the cloud was still missing—the Internet.
1969 – Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider – ARPANET
This was the first real technology that could be classified as cloud computing, and it was also the early predecessor of the Internet. With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, ARPANET, a.k.a., the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, became the first viable way to send data through packets.
Although Licklider was a huge part of obtaining funding for this project, the names associated with the success of ARPANET are numerous. Suffice it to say, we owe a lot to the computer scientists, researchers, universities, and contractors who gave us the key to what would soon become the basis for the Internet we know (and are addicted to) today.
With ARPANET, you didn’t need on-site storage of computer data. You could access someone else’s stored data remotely.
1982 – IBM – The Ethernet Adapter
IBM once again advanced us toward the cloud with its introduction of Ethernet. These cables and adapters allowed the incredibly fast yet inexpensive connections that allowed online storage and cloud computing to begin.
1990s – Online Backup Storage
During the dot-com boom, we got our first glimpse at Internet-based storage in the form of backup services. Hundreds of companies were clamoring to offer ways to securely store backups of data. Some of these included EVault, NetMass, Arkeia, and CommVault. These companies offered online storage, but not strictly what we can call cloud storage. The vast majority of these companies went bust when the dot-com bubble burst.
One of the few that survived was Veritas NetBackup, which was bought out by tech giant Symantec. Veritas offered a unique combination of tape archiving, local network backup and online storage. You can still use this as version 7.6, now known as Symantec NetBackup.
1994 – AT&T – PersonaLink
Telecom giant AT&T offered us the first time consumers really heard The Cloud. Although this cloud worked a little differently than the cloud in which we store data today, the concept was certainly emerging—even if the market wasn’t quite there yet.
AT&T licensed a software program called TeleScript to create its PersonaLink Services. Built for laptops and PDAs, TeleScript enabled “virtual assistants” to reach out wirelessly from the user’s device to retrieve information about the weather, order flowers, sort e-mails, and update stock portfolios. AT&T released a video to explain this new “electronic meeting place as the cloud.”
All of this relied on what they then called “virtual storage areas,” where the program would store and retrieve information at request. Unfortunately, PersonaLink never really took off. It was prohibitively expensive to even own a compatible device, and by 1996, AT&T nixed the project citing the growth of the Internet.
1996 – U.S. Navy – IT-2
Here again we see the U.S. government involved in the evolution of cloud technologies. The Navy launched its Ethernet project entitled IT-2 in hopes of developing a more secure network for information sharing. Without security, the idea of cloud computing could never have come to fruition.
2006 – Amazon – AWS S3
Ahhh… The cloud as we know it today. When Amazon.com started its Web Services division in 2002, few people expected it to revolutionize the technology industry. By 2006, Amazon was ready to launch its S3 cloud storage service. Yes! We made it! True online cloud storage.
S3 was designed specifically for software developers. Part of Amazon’s contribution to the industry also lies in its pricing structure released in 2009, which has been widely adapted throughout most cloud storage providers. The new “pay-per-use” pricing allows the owner of the data to pass the data transfer charge to its customer.
Several very popular and data-intensive websites now use S3 for cloud storage, including Netflix, Pinterest, Dropbox, and Smugmug.
Google launched a similar service in 2010 called, of course, Google Storage.
2006 – Carbonite & Mozy – Online Backup Storage (Redux)
By 2005, there were several newly founded companies planning to release consumer-aimed online storage. Carbonite & Mozy were the leaders of the pack with their coinciding releases the following year.
In May 2006, Carbonite released its unlimited backup service. Its partnerships with Microsoft and Packard Bell gave Carbonite’s introduction to the world a lot of visibility and credibility.
Mozy had the deck stacked against them. They started with a tenth of Carbonite’s funding, but with their focus on end-user simplicity, they quickly rose to the top of the pack. Mozy also started with unlimited storage, but quickly had to switch pricing structure when the consumer demand made it unprofitable. Carbonite soon encountered the same problem, which led to their controversial throttling policy to limit users’ “unlimited” storage space.
As the years rolled by, more companies sprung up to offer mobile device backup, better pricing, external hard drive support, physical media restores and other increasingly useful and necessary features. The main goal of these companies was the continual backup of files in case of accidental file deletion, hardware crashes, viruses, and other calamities. However, full restores were painfully slow, if not impossible.
2008 – Dropbox – Personal Cloud Storage
Dropbox was founded by MIT students, one of whom was frustrated with continually losing his USB flash drive. When Drew Houston realized that current online storage was too slow or size limited, Houston developed his own solution. Soon Houston and his co-founders were able to obtain seed money to launch their new service.
Dropbox’s pricing worked on the “freemium” model, where users were allowed a certain amount of storage space for free before any fees would be required. Dropbox uses Amazon’s S3 service to store consumer data.
2012 – Google – Google Drive
When Google launched its new Drive feature, everyone took notice—albeit by force. If you had a Gmail account, as hundreds of millions of users did, Google was quick to introduce you to its cloud-based storage workspace. The added ability to share and edit files was not a new concept, but it was incredibly well done. Instead of simply backing up your files or servicing your favorite website’s data needs, Google Drive was intended as a personal virtual workspace.
Google Drive’s office suite allowed users up to 15 GB for free, with up to 100 GB available for only $2/month. Small businesses, students and other collaborators quickly took advantage of their new Gmail connected service. Just a year later, Google boasted 120 million Drive users.
2015-20?? – The Future of Online Storage
In recent years, online storage and cloud services have become somewhat of a “race to the bottom.” Hundreds of companies with dozens of lead competitors are offering up free online storage through trials or freemium pricing. The amounts of storage have become seemingly unlimited, but the server capacities are quickly becoming strained. Companies like Google are experimenting to find cheaper ways to maintain their servers, including using sea water as a cooling mechanism.
It’s likely that the larger companies are simply riding out the “free” market while waiting for smaller storage companies to fold when their data capacity is reached or the numbers just don’t prove profitable. Many storage companies are willing to take the temporary losses with current pricing trends if they expect they’ll be one of the few left standing a few years from now.
In fact, we’ve already see this dire situation play out. In September 2013, cloud storage company Nirvanix announced it would very soon shut down. The move was a surprise to its customers, who were frantically trying to retrieve their stored information. They quickly discovered their bandwidth was insufficient, and by the time Nirvanix completely shut down in October, some customers had permanently lost their data. These types of stories may continue to play out, giving a real edge to big names like Amazon and Google.
Security is another constant issue for online storage. Hacking has been an occasional problem for several companies like Dropbox. While this may not be a huge concern for the average user backing up photos and software applications, the sensitivity of confidential information cannot be taken lightly for many business owners.
So what does this history mean?
We’ve come a long way in our ability to store data, and online storage and cloud services have only recently become mainstream. We have seen how it takes a number of innovative minds to produce a new technology, and it takes subsequent companies offering their own improvements to shake up the market. With this history in mind, we can only imagine the technologies that are yet to come.