August 16, 2017
Where Did All the Technology Go?
The Road to Invisible Technology
Today, Information Technology (I.T.) is a critical part of our everyday work and personal lives. Yet in some ways I.T. appears to have disappeared.
Big, Really Big
It wasn’t that long ago when I.T. was a big thing… I mean a big thing, physically. The world’s first large-scale electronic general-purpose digital computer, the ENIAC, was introduced to the world on Feb. 14, 1946. Developed under contract for the U.S. Army by the University of Pennsylvania’s John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. The massive machine cost almost $7 mil in today’s dollars but you got a lot for your money: 17,468 vacuum tubes, 7200 crystal diodes, 1500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and approximately 5,000,000 hand-soldered joints. It weighed in at more than 60,000 pounds and measured 8 feet tall, 3 feet deep and 80 feet long. The power bill was significant too, since it consumed 150kW of electricity. Despite all those large numbers, to give you an idea of the ENIAC’s relatively small computing power, an iPhone 6 is up to three hundred million times more powerful!
The advent of the transistor in 1947, resulting from the ground-breaking work by John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, was a major milestone in the miniaturization and reliability of electronic devices. It should be no surprise that Bardeen, Shockley and Brattain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956 for their work on the transistor because it changed everything. By 1955, IBM released the first all transistor computer, the IBM 608 calculator. The 608 was half the size and used one tenth as much electric power as a vacuum tube model. Prices were already dropping fast. The 608 sold for about three quarters of a million in today’s dollars. This was the beginning of modern electronics and computing.
By 1965 Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, could see an important trend developing in the early integrated circuits being designed and manufactured at Intel. He predicted that the number of components in an integrated circuit would double every year. He later revised it to doubling every two years, but it is often quoted as every eighteen months. This became known as “Moore’s Law”. Moore knew that this rate would eventually slow down or completely hit a wall. Today the rate is around two and a half years. A key part of this doubling rate is reduction in the physical size of the components in an integrated circuit. The Intel 4004 Microprocessor from 1971 contained 2300 transistors and each transistor took up a space of about 1000nm (yes, nanometers) and it sold for about $1300 in today’s dollars. By comparison, the 2017 Xbox Project Scorpio processor contains seven billion transistors and uses a 16nm process. By the way, the Xbox Project Scorpio will probably come in at around five hundred US dollars. But that certainly isn’t the end… Intel has mentioned plans to manufacture processors using processes as small as 5nm. So, here’s the bottom line, complexity and density is ever increasing yet physical size and consumer prices continue to trend downward.
Along with these huge advances in computing power, we’ve also seen great advances in storage. Early magnetic tape, vacuum tubes, magnetic cores, floppy disk and even hard disks held very little information by today’s standards. Surprisingly some of these technologies like magnetic tape and hard disk drives are still mainstream today, albeit with much improved capacities. Storage is rapidly moving towards solid state and mechanical/magnetic storage is being relegated to archival and other low performance situations. The days of backing up your local hard drive to tape, disk, or flash media is almost behind us too. For many uses and users, the requirement and connection to local physical storage mediums is fading away as me move at break neck speed towards cloud based storage services. It is estimated that the big four online storage and service companies: Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google store somewhere north of 1.2 exabytes of data. But that is a drop in the bucket of the total data universe that measures over 4 zettabytes and growing! One data storage growth estimate predicts the number to grow by a factor of 10 by 2020.
OK, just so there’s no confusion… Al Gore didn’t invent the Internet. The Internet began many years before any of us were aware of its existence. ARPANET the first working prototype, dates back to the late 1960s. The creation of TCP/IP by Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf in the 1970s set the standard for how data would flow on the Internet. The Internet first began to take on a recognizable form when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in the 1990s. The World Wide Web or the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is just one of the many protocols that work over the Internet, but it is the one that popularized the Internet. Even for those of us who lived and worked in the pre-Internet world, it’s hard to fathom the modern work place without the World Wide Web. Email, Instant Messaging, VoIP, and websites for every conceivable topic or need… seemingly drive our every thought and activity. Just out of curiosity, what happens in your office or home when the Internet goes down? Or just slows down? Yes, it is traumatic! The internet is an incredibly busy place too. There’s more than a billion websites and the traffic to these websites represents more than a zettabyte of data transferred over the Internet each year.
These exploding capacities: computing speed, storage size, and ubiquitous high speed internet access has created the perfect storm for another explosion… Virtualization. Today’s Internet wouldn’t be possible without Virtualization. Netcraft’s annual survey discovered almost six million web servers. Image, if each of these web servers had to be a separate physical server. You certainly wouldn’t be able to buy hosted services at the prices we enjoy today. For example, Digital Ocean offers virtual machines for as low as $5 per month. The threshold has never been lower for an individual or business to spin up a server to perform any number of workloads. The big impact on businesses is the reduced or nonexistent need to buy and support their own physical servers located in a company owned computer room or data center. This simultaneously reduces the need for certain expensive and often unavailable on-site, on-staff skill sets.
Pairing the Internet with Virtualization and vertical skill sets you get the next big evolution… Software as a Service and Platform as a Service. One of the biggest headaches in enterprise I.T. is the long-term care and feeding of a commercial software solutions. I’ve seen software solutions that out lived three generations of server hardware and our hardware replacement cycle was long, 6-8 years. The CAPEX costs and human capital costs for decades long life cycles are enormous. Add on the risks of data loss from admin errors, technology failures, and cyber security breaches and it easy to see why the thought of self-hosting an Internet connected business application is enough to stop the most grizzled executive in their tracks. That’s just a few of the key ways that SaaS delivery of business solutions take the weight off the enterprise. Yes, there’s a cost associated with using a SaaS or PaaS solution, but it ultimately frees resources that the enterprise can use to innovate, be more agile, and focus on its core business.
Thick or Thin
If you’ve been around business computing long enough, you’ll remember a few cycles of Thick and Thin computing at the desktop. The original IBM PC and its clones were the first thick computing tools used in most businesses at the time. Short of sharing floppy disks, most of the data was trapped within each individual PC. Not much later, Thin computing took off with dumb terminals serially connected to xenix, unix, and other proprietary server operating systems. This was a boon for businesses because the terminals were relatively inexpensive and the data was accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, these systems were great at performing their dedicated tasks, but they weren’t great for word processing, spread sheets, or the next killer app… Email. Many businesses began putting thick PCs back on desks so users could have the best of both worlds, Email, office apps, and Internet while still accessing the terminal based systems. We went through another Thin cycle with Windows Thin clients running on protocols developed by Citrix, Microsoft, and others. These solutions work well in specialized situations but they’re incredibly complex and expensive to stand up and maintain. As a result, I’ve seen them abandoned in favor of thick PCs once again. Now, with the huge success of web based SaaS/PaaS products from several big players in the market, we’re headed back towards another Thin client cycle, this time around however, the browser is the dumb terminal.
The Future Is Here
The ubiquity of the Internet and the widespread adoption of cell phones and other mobile devices brings us to a unique moment in time where all proceeding technologies are collapsed into an incredibly small and inexpensive device. The explosion of compute and storage capacities in these devices allows them to serve dual roles as both thick and thin clients. Paired up with web based SaaS/PaaS solutions employees can collaborate… while working anywhere, at any time, with little risk of an outage thanks to five nines up time guarantees… all for a nominal monthly fee. Throw in Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, IOT, and RFID and you have the makings of a Utopian future right out of science fiction. Going forward expect I.T. will be everywhere but nowhere and we’ll interact with “IT” as naturally as we interact with each other.
This story covers about seventy-one years, but the pace of advancement has really accelerated over the last two decades. For developers and managers of student and multi-family housing the impact of the accelerating change is significant. So many of the amenities that we build into a property are either completely based on I.T. or are substantially dependent on I.T. While a great deal of the ‘hard’ technology is hidden away in closets, walls, and ceilings the most directly impactful ‘hard’ technology is hiding in plain sight… on our wrists and in our hip pockets. ‘Soft’ technology, the spirit of technology if you will, permeates the lives of our residents and the property operators too. It drives many of our needs and desires. To a large degree it is our connection with place, time, social groups, and the closest individuals in our lives.