IT Leadership


Is the IT Pendulum Winding Down?

If you’ve been in IT long enough, you’ve probably heard someone observe that, for as long as there have been computers, there has been a long, slow pendulum swing between centralized and distributed computing paradigms. From mainframes, to remote terminals, to timesharing, to PCs, to client/server, to mobile devices, to cloud computing — the pendulum has been easy to discern, though much harder to explain.

In the midst of the constant change that is the IT industry, the idea of a stable, long-term cycle between centralization and decentralization is truly appealing: It would be comforting if something in the industry were as stable as the tides! The industry is all worked up about cloud computing now, but conventional wisdom says that soon everyone will be refocusing on what can be done locally with next-generation smartphones, or perhaps with cybernetic implants. It’s never a long hop from comforting myth to received wisdom or dogma, and by now many people view the cycle itself as a law of nature.

It has become clear to me, however, that the conventional wisdom is wrong and the pendulum is indeed winding down — soon to halt. It is true that sometimes what looks like a pendulum is in fact a pendulum. But at least as often, when you’re swinging back and forth between two alternatives, it’s because neither one of them alone is meeting all your needs. When you finally find an alternative that does meet all your needs, you can stop swinging.

Perhaps You Can Have Everything

In this case, technology is finally reaching the point where we can have our cake and eat it too. We all want fast, powerful, rich applications that we control completely; but at the same time, we want to do absolutely zero work to administer our machines and applications. More and more companies are learning that this is exactly what cloud computing allows them to do.

For applications that interact with you immediately and richly, nothing will ever beat a computer that’s close by, perhaps in your hand. But the average user has no patience or tolerance for the maintenance activities that need to go along with it: storage, backup and system administration, for example. Such tasks are far better accomplished by professionally administered remote servers.

Traditionally, application designers have had to trade off the speed and responsiveness of a local application against the reliable remote maintenance of a server-based application. However, that tradeoff will soon be as obsolete as EBCDIC. Today, there are ultraportable machines that provide rich interfaces and media. There is near-ubiquitous high-speed Internet connectivity, almost anywhere (with a few lamentable exceptions such as my own home, but that’s a story for another day). And, with the emerging paradigm of cloud computing, users (even corporate ones) can be largely oblivious to the problems and complexities of running reliable services.

It’s true (mostly) that no individual technology in cloud computing is fundamentally new. Networked services have been around since the ’70s, and most modern applications were first demonstrated in the ’80s as part of university projects like Andrew at Carnegie Mellon and Athena at MIT. However, as one of the participants in the Andrew project, I can share that much of what we did was amazingly cool on campus … but completely impractical for the wider environment. The iPhone wouldn’t seem nearly so cool if it had to do all its communication at 14.4 kilobaud (Android phones wouldn’t seem cool either, but at least owners could be distracted from that by hacking the system code to try and speed it up).

3 (or so) Easy Pieces

What’s new and makes cloud computing far more than the latest buzzword is simply that all of the pieces have finally come together in mature form: powerful computing devices so cheap they’re nearly disposable. High speed connectivity so ubiquitous it’s nearly everywhere. Maturing cloud-based services so reliable that they’re nearly always available. Putting all of these together shows shines a radically different light on an organization’s (or an individual’s) data processing needs.

Cloud computing is new not because the technologies are new, but because this key combination of technologies has matured past a critical point. Cloud computing is the name we give to the newly emergent properties of this combination of technologies.

Properly configured, a cloud-oriented user should never have to worry about backing up anything ever again. A disk or flash drive will never be needed, because any and all data will always be available anywhere, anytime. Similarly, an organization that has moved its office functions to the cloud should never have to worry about system administration, beyond the most localized activities, such as adding and deleting user accounts, or keeping the local network running.

Did you drop your Droid into the swimming pool? Did your salesman leave a laptop somewhere in the airport? In the cloud computing world, these become no more than minor nuisances; just replace the machine and reconnect to the cloud. All of your data is intact and you still have more processing power at your fingertips than when astronauts first walked on the moon.

There will certainly be a downside to the pendulum slowing down: Jobs for system administrators or related positions in non-computer-oriented companies may dwindle. However, this will soon be offset by jobs at cloud computing companies developing, managing and administering cloud services. The issues of privacy and security will continue to demand constant vigilance from providers and thoughtful attention from users, administrators and managers — and will become another landing place for experts.

The promised land is indeed in sight; the pendulum is indeed slowing down. The majority will find the cloud world simpler, more efficient and basically more pleasant to use than what has come before. The ideas behind cloud computing itself may not technically be new, but instead of continuing to swing while ideas are tested out and modifications are made, cloud computing’s newfound maturity will finally allow organizations to stop following the pendulum and to start taking advantage of technology without fearing what direction’s coming next.

Nathaniel Borenstein is chief scientist for cloud-based email management company Mimecast.

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