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Is Cloud computing the mainframe’s close cousin?

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From his 1950 Meccano robot called George to his mammoth project to recreate the wartime code-cracking Colossus and his founding of the National Museum of Computing, Tony Sale, who died yesterday, can be seen as the embodiment of the computing age.

Looking back at his career and the changes in technology over the decades, there’s a natural tendency to think how much things have changed – and in terms of computer speeds and sizes that is undoubtedly true.

But I wonder if things haven’t just gone full circle. Aren’t the mainframe and Cloud computing actually very close cousins?

With the mainframe, all your computing power and data is centrally stored, with staff accessing it through relatively basic terminals. Isn’t that exactly what Cloud computing is? People using their smartphones or iPads to connect to their email or online applications – which could be hosted anywhere – is not that different from users in the 1970s using green screen terminals to connect to the mainframe computer that was hidden in a large noisy room. Except of course that the “terminals” can now house more computing power in their tiny cases than a room-filling Colossus or Cray.

The PC, where your applications, data and computing power are on a single platform, will be around for many years but the growth of Cloud-enabled mobile computing means that desktop computing is certainly no longer the cutting edge as the global decline of PC sales is showing.

Maybe what Tony Sale’s career shows us is, like fashion, if you wait long enough what was in vogue many years ago will come back as the latest thing. When we get the Meccano Cloud we’ll know for certain.

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