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20 years of cloud computing – a retrospective

(Image credit: Image Credit: TZIDO SUN / Shutterstock)

My business has been an internet services and cloud business since before cloud was a recognised term. We’ve been lucky enough to have just celebrated our 20th anniversary, and have grown by staying at the forefront of managed service provision innovation. The managed and cloud services space has really rocketed and transformed the consumer, business-to-consumer and business-to-business sectors in this time.

How did we do without the cloud?

In fact, in the past twenty years, technology has led a genuine business revolution, laying the platform for the digital transformation ahead. A 1996 business would be baffled by the leaps made in those twenty years. Caught up in it as we are, it’s hard to always appreciate just how far we’ve come. The revolution has not been an abrupt change, it’s changed our lives as consumers first, and now increasingly in our business lives.

In 1996, well for a start, no one would have read this. Blogging wasn’t a ‘thing’. Most business people would be using their Pentium powered PCs for their typing (or maybe for playing Solitaire – still a novelty! – on their CRT monitors) using Windows 95, and they might be using the cool new CD-R technology to share content. Broadband wouldn’t be around in a real sense for another four years, so sharing data over the web was definitely not the norm.

Websites looked terrible, web design was in its infancy and skills and tools to manage design and build were not yet common. And of course there were no smartphones. In fact, there was no ringtone industry then either – which in retrospect, was a blessing! With minimal internet, and nothing spectacular in the way of mobile devices, of course there was no Wi-Fi either.

There were signs of things to come in the air. It was in 1996 that eBay and Ask Jeeves were also started. Globally, in one year, the number of Internet host computers went from 1 million to 10 million. Excitingly for the technology industry, IBM's Deep Blue defeated Chess Champion (and very human) Gary Kasparov. And of course, 1996 was the birth year of Google.

The pace of change picked up massively from this year. Broadband premiered in 1997, and increasingly business saw a digital, online future for the world. Wi-Fi followed in 1999, and the iPod and digital satellite radio followed in 2001. Hosted Microsoft Exchange launched in the early-2000s, and Cobweb provided connectivity and basic hosting from the start for the businesses who were early adopters of the cloud.

Towards the end of the ‘noughties’ with the advent of the Kindle, iPhone and iPad, cloud services were able to come into their own. Consumers had mobile devices and had been using online services on their PCs for over a decade.

Digital transformation in the (whatever sized) enterprise

As the technology landscape has matured through mobile connectivity, cloud computing and managed services, entirely new industries have risen as part of the cloud boom, becoming household names or cautionary tales depending on their longevity and success. Who would have thought that an online bookshop would now be one of the biggest cloud service providers!

IT solutions delivered online or over the corporate network have radically transformed how organisations connect with customers, partners and prospects. The digital economy of today is a very different place to the business world of 1996. It has not been an easy or seamless transition. Many industries have been disrupted as they have adapted to the new normal, and some have fallen away completely. In 2016 everything from taxis and take-aways to dating and dog walking can be ordered and managed online, and usually with an app on almost any mobile phone.

Within businesses, colleagues are connected and collaborating like never before. Cloud computing has transformed the workplace in ways that have massively changed the pace of work. Although the dreams of a paperless office haven’t quite made it (like flying cars or jetpacks) – we are now transacting much more business digitally rather than face to face or over the phone. These technologies are really changing industry dynamics. That’s why we see fewer high street banks, and no video rental stores, but lots of self-scanning machines in the supermarket. Consumers like doing more for themselves – and it is digital technology that allows all this to happen. predicts that by 2017, there will be more internet traffic than all prior internet years combined, and that by the end of the year Wi-Fi and connected devices will generate 68 per cent of all internet traffic. They say that online retail sales in the UK reached an estimated £52.25 billion in 2015, with the average shopper spending £1,174. Consumers certainly have voted with their feet (or perhaps with their fingers) and definitely their wallets.

‘Born in the cloud’ companies are emerging and growing at astounding rates. Established technology providers like Microsoft have pivoted to prioritise cloud services over on-premise solutions, and there is a healthy marketplace of big service providers offering an explosion of “-as-a-Service” offerings for businesses who need solutions to tough regulatory and operational challenges, including SaaS, PaaS, IaaS, and specific types like BaaS, DRaaS, UCaaS, and many more!

Subscription services like Microsoft’s Office 365 provide an ever expanding set of capabilities, accessible from the ‘waffle’ icon, for enterprises of all sizes. No longer is the SMB outclassed by the resources of a large enterprise. The number of quality services grows month on month. And likewise, no longer are larger organisations beaten in the agility stakes by smaller players. Agility and access to technology have been democratised. Increasingly businesses are differentiated on their customer service and creativity rather than ability to transact and process business at a basic level.

And since the 2000s a huge change is that old fashioned telephony has been replaced by cheaper, more convenient solutions such as VoIP and services like Skype for Business, and business teams share information over the likes of Yammer, SharePoint or Workplace by Facebook no matter where or in which time zone they are based. Boundaries have been pushed back and many organisations are no longer limited by borders, access to skills, or language barriers.

Over this period Cobweb’s services evolved to encompass hosted email and multi-tenant hosted solutions, and most recently managed cloud services, developing our provisioning, self-care control panels and billing system, key to operational efficiency in a cloud world.

The role of the IT department and the IT partner in the cloud ecosystem

With such a profusion of online activity, it seems that practically overnight IT partners have had to decide how they want their relationships with customers to function in a cloud world. Many IT departments have offloaded functions to automated services and deliver more innovative services than the past ‘keeping the lights on/keeping the emails flowing’ requirements of the business.

Value-add services have come to define the relationships between IT partners and their business customers. New cloud aggregators have sprung up to serve the reseller market and allow partners to cost effectively provide new services without managing their own data centres or devising their own billing and automation requirements – a hugely complex and costly undertaking.

The speed of change is such that it’s grown increasingly hard for IT service providers to start up in the cloud and meaningfully compete from scratch without turning to packaged services from aggregators who have cracked the difficult tasks of automating service provision, support and billing. You could take a view that we are heading to just three or four “computers” in the world, with Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure leading the way.

Now IT departments and IT partners have a different relationship, based on a value provision rather a simple delivery of equipment and its maintenance. The dynamic matches that of the business user’s experience of cloud technologies: dynamic, fluid and seamless. Cobweb launched Vuzion, the value-add cloud aggregator in 2016, enabling any IT reseller to easily become a cloud solution provider. With an integrated marketplace of solutions and billing automation and an ecosystem of partners and value adding partner services, it helps any IT provider be up and running with cloud solutions almost instantly.

Cloud technologies are underpinning the digital transformation that most enterprises are going through, and which many SMBs are just starting to explore. The opportunities to respond to customer and market opportunities are bigger now than ever before, but more than ever require an ability to turn technology in to business value. It’s a great time to be in technology and at the forefront of an ongoing revolution.

For Cobweb, an upcoming challenge really pushes cloud technologies to the limit, as they look to assist customer Team Britannia, the UK’s bid to build the fastest and most fuel-efficient wave-slicing powerboat to circumnavigate the globe. Team Britannia will use Cobweb’s cloud services to stay connected to the world, broadcasting the challenges and successes of the gruelling record-setting attempt. Telemetry from the boat will be uploaded, analysed, and visualised in the cloud – and the crew will be connected to the outside world with online broadcast capabilities. The plan is to enable up to 10,000 people to simultaneously see and hear broadcasts, with the ability to ask the crew questions in real-time.

After 20 years of working with the cloud, the original promise of a totally connected, anytime, anywhere and however we want it world, is really here.

Michael Frisby, managing director, Vuzion and Cobweb Solutions
Image Credit: TZIDO SUN / Shutterstock

Michael Frisby
Michael leads Cobweb Solutions and Vuzion, the cloud aggregator. He previously lead Microsoft’s SMB Managed Reseller channel across Western Europe, building the Office 365 Syndication business to one million users.