On Cyclical Transformation

Sep 04
On Cyclical Transformation

"Could I Interest You in a Timeshare?"

I emerge from Microsoft into a technical landscape undergoing radical changes. This is nothing new. In fact, it is something even older than computing itself. For as long as there has been business, every few years something comes along to shake it up. Whether sociological or technological, change and transformation are a constant fact of life. Some changes are linear and progressive – like the reduction in the length of the average workweek, the speed of data transition, or the size of a given level of computing power. Other changes are more cyclical.

Tick: Starting at the (Data) Center

One of these cyclical changes is the balance of computing power between distribution and centralization. Early computers were huge and horribly expensive for even the most basic of capabilities, and only the largest organizations could afford them. Yet once you had crossed that threshold, the performance was so fast that the actual work for most companies only took a fraction of the raw computing power these behemoths provided. Eventually, some companies started selling these "wasted cycles" to other organizations (General Electric "GEnie"), and others came into being specifically to offer "time-shared" computer processing (CompuServe).

Tock: Swinging to the Desktop

The first tools to access these services were simply terminals attached through modems in offices. This soon changed, as the growing popularity of desktop microcomputers like the Atari 800, TI-99, Commodore 64, and Apple ][ started making these services attractive to individuals in homes as well as companies. While some saw these desktop systems as little more than toys, their owners quickly started reaping the benefits of having their own processor that didn't depend on a data center to enable basic productivity.

As uses became accustomed to this autonomy, they started bringing their home computers into the office. Corporate IT departments realized that this was a concern on a number of fronts. Each of these devices had their own operating systems, applications, and data formats. Now that they were being used for work, the users wanted IT to be able to support them, and wanted to share data with one another. In addition, for as long as there have been people, there have been other people who seek to do them harm, which meant that corporate data was now being put at risk in a whole new way.

Tick: Rebuilding the Glass House

To address these concerns, IT began establishing standards, and eventually budgeted for company provided systems. They were greatly aided in this by IBM's de facto "blessing" of the desktop with the introduction of their own "Personal Computer". The IBM PC and its clones became the new way of working. In addition to these standards, information sharing became easier with the introduction of Local Area Networking (LAN), and the establishment of in-house Servers for the storage of data and user files. It is important to note that within these organizations, centralized computing never actually went away. The latest generation of mainframe and minicomputers continued to be employed for certain "heavy lifting", such as accounting systems, HR, ERP, and other tasks, brought back in-house from timeshares due to falling equipment prices. These new "file servers" for PC's joined the existing big iron in computer rooms around the world. As these microcomputers grew in scale and power, some of the applications from the "big iron" started being moved onto this new platform.

Tock-Tick: What a Tangled Web

Just as IT was getting comfortable with their networks, the outside world intervened again with the explosion in popularity of the Internet, and in particular, the World Wide Web. Public network speeds were increasing. Local PC power was increasing. Barriers to entry were falling. Hosting services became the new timeshares. Business models were changing – you almost couldn't be successful unless you had a presence "on the web". All a user needed was a web browser, and information from all over the world was theirs.

This same technology, however, was just as useful within an organization. Corporate Intranets were built just as easily as public facing web sites. And it all lived happily in the corporate data center. Hidden from the outside world behind firewalls. Layered with antivirus software. Safe and sound…

TOCK! Power in Your Pocket

Humans are mobile. They are not designed to be bound to a desk, or any other single place, for extended periods of time. The advent of the smartphone has enabled people to take their productivity and entertainment with them wherever they go. Today's smartphones have more storage and processing power than a desktop PC of just a few years ago. In addition, ease of use and installation of various apps make for a handheld tool of unprecedented effective power and versatility. Unfortunately, this power is frequently muted in its application because the corporate data is locked away.

TICK! Reaching for the Clouds

The latest digital transformation in many enterprises is the rethinking of just how much data to maintain behind the firewall. Many capabilities that used to be solidly in the "in-house" camp are now readily available online. From identity management, to line of business applications, and beyond it is becoming very attractive to "move to the cloud". Services like Office 365 and G Suite purport to offer everything your users have on their desktops, from word processing to instant messaging, through a single unified experience, accessible from anywhere, and secured with your corporate credentials. Software, Platform, and even Infrastructure services are available to build and deploy your own enterprise applications, without the hassle of building, hosting, and securing your own servers. Modern design for new applications means that these services can be used and shared across devices regardless of their base operating system.

In many respects, the digital workplace transformation of today with its cloud services represents a "full circle" back to the same timeshare model used so long ago. The services themselves have come a long way from those basic text terminal interfaces, but the idea remains the same. Shared Services, leveraged by multiple companies, making their data available wherever and whenever it is needed.