There are fads and trends in information technology, just like in the world of clothing or hairstyles. One of the latest fads is pie-in-the-sky computing (PITS), otherwise as “cloud computing” or software-as-a-service – SAAS (pronounced as in “sassy”).
But I’ll call it pie-in-the-sky (PITS) computing, just to be different and even a bit contrary.
PITS computing is only the latest in a long line of sea-changes in IT. Electronic data processing (EDP – now there’s an old term) was the very first of these trends, appearing on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. EDP was a world of punch cards and paper tape. EDP was the era of “glass house” data centers and a computer “priesthood”. Computers were far too expensive and esoteric for normal human beings to comprehend or touch. So there was a “priesthood” of specially anointed and trained computer specialists whose job was the programming, care and feeding of the electronic monsters.
But the development of computing technology continued relentlessly. Along came mainframe computing (green-screen). personal computing, local-area-network computing, client-server computing and Internet or web computing.
Each one of these phases was driven by some significant technological advance. The development of microchips and the Intel 8088 processor, for example, drove the personal computing trend. (Thank you Intel and IBM!) The development of Ethernet standards drove networking which allowed individual computers to talk to each other.
And then computing, of course, became part of the mainstream culture. Any human being in a developed country knows “windows” doesn’t refer to that wonderful device for seeing through walls, the “glass window”, but rather the portal into the world of computers, an operating system developed and marketed by Microsoft. And almost no one thinks of the “web” as a home for spiders or the “net” as a tool for catching fish or butterflies.
In this context, PITS is the latest fad in computing and technology. PITS is driven by the appearance of more-or-less ubiquitous and reliable high speed networking. Networks today, thanks to fiber optic cable, the router/switch revolution (thank you Cisco) and advances in wireless (wi-fi and 3G telecomm networks), are virtually everywhere. Or at least everywhere where human beings live and companies and governments do significant business.
And these networks are reliable. The wired networks almost never go down, although the signal can get weak or strange with wireless. In my house for example, our Wi-Fi network connected to a wired DSL Internet connection has 105 megabits per second of throughput. Yet my commercial telecomm provided cell phone only works at a certain specific spot in the kitchen in front of the microwave!
Most enterprises now operate with giant central servers which store data and applications. At the City of Seattle, for example, we have computer aided dispatch systems which reside on central servers at a “highly secret” police department location. The police data resides there, but cops on the street can access criminal records and license plate information which reside not only in Seattle but also on the other side of the nation or even on another continent.
Our water utility manages pumps and valves and dams and reservoirs across the entire county and up into the Cascade mountains. City Light, our electrical utility, manages an electrical grid which spans the entire state of Washington.
We all routinely use the web to find information and read the news. But we also increasingly use it to store spreadsheets or photos or documents on our own websites or using servers such as Google apps. Microsoft is embracing the trend, with its Office 2010 now available “for free” in a PITS cloud.
So if Microsoft Office can be in a “cloud” somewhere on the Internet, why can’t our payroll system or e-mail system or financial management system be halfway across the State in a data center in Grant County, Washington (next to giant hydroelectric dams to supply the power) or even halfway across the United States, well outside the Seattle earthquake disaster zone?
Of course the applications and data can be almost anywhere. In the past, I’ve been skeptical of PITS / cloud computing because I didn’t trust the networks to stay up in a disaster, and I was concerned about the security of information stored in a non-descript data center in a distant location outside my personal control.
But with today’s reliable networks, the network is not the issue. And major companies like Microsoft or Amazon or Google handle the management and security better than most governments or small businesses. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the World Trade Center disaster, the data could actually reside in multiple different locations around the nation, increasing our ability to withstand a disaster like that 8.0 magnitude earthquake.
It will be a while before we in government embrace PITS, because the loss of control is a big cultural change for governments and many large companies to swallow. Just like people were concerned when their data moved off their desktop computers to a server, and servers moved out of the closet on the same floor to a centralized computer center in the government complex, so it will take us some time to embrace having those computers in an unnamed nondescript but super-secure location, possibly right next to the bunker where Vice-President Dick Cheney hung out after September 11th.
But embrace it we will.