Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Everything New is Old Again

Once upon a time, there were no computers, at least nothing we’d call a computer. Eventually, ideas of a computer appeared, like Babbage’s Analytical Engine, but the execution was lacking. In the first half of the last century, various computers (or computer-like devices) arrived, but they were so fundamentally different from one another, it was hard to apply one label to all. For example, there was a variation known as the analog computer—that is, analog instead of digital. These, mostly hybrids (yes, Virginia, the term existed before cars), were in widespread use before digital computers. (and they’re still in use if you know where to look).

Next was the era of a few really big computers. (Big being a relative term; most cell phones are more powerful.) Legend has it that IBM’s Thomas J. Watson (Sr.) said there was no need for more than five of these computers. You may have seen pictures of these room-sized, air-conditioned monsters. What you probably don’t know was they were all (with a few government exceptions) leased. No one, except their makers like IBM and Univac, could afford to own one. What happened next was logical: these big machines were housed in large data centers and then shared by users (the centers leased the hardware and rented its use by the hour). The next step was also logical: sharing large machines at a distance, using the sophisticated computer terminal of its day, the teletype. Soon actual computer terminals, with screen and keyboards showed up. And these large remotely-shared machines were called time-shared.

The next step was more dream than logic. It was a vision tying together a great many of these time-shared machines into a giant computer utility. As I said, more of a dream, because compatibility issues were overwhelming. They were, that is, until the government stepped in (an agency then called DARPA) and made the dream a reality—by creating its own network. But it was not intended for general computer users. Nor were users very interested, because by now they’d drifted away from the big data centers and the time-sharing monsters. How did they manage the move? By using a (comparatively) little computer generically called a Mini. Made by a small group of new manufacturers (DEC, Data General, Wang, and a few others), these littler machines (refrigerator-size, not room-size) were not only capable, they were cheaper. But that’s not all. They were cheap enough for companies to purchase and get out from under the endless lease burden. Therefore, the companies that bought them, controlled them. And they bought more. And more companies jumped on this fast-growing mini-bandwagon.

Then one day, not surprisingly, the mini gave birth to the micro. (Known to you all now as the personal computer.) These were seen originally as a joke (or a toy) by the existing computing industry. But, like all computers, they grew more powerful and took over the tasks of their big brothers—for a lot less money. They were cheap enough, and powerful enough, that just connecting them made the Internet what it is today. Roughly two billion interconnected computers, each participating for its own purposes. And did I mention cheap?

But guess what? The big providers out there aren’t nearly satisfied with their multi-billion-dollar slices of the Internet. They want more. And they’re doing their best to sell it to you. (Or haven’t you noticed that all the Microsoft Windows 7 ads are about the wonders of the Cloud?) Now for the funny part: many of those hyping this latest “new advance in computing” are calling it—ready?—the big computer utility.

Cloud or utility, they can call it what they want (I call it smoke and mirrors). It’s still the same old game. Big guys sell you a tiny slice and control your usage. And, if you’re not very careful, your data. Unfortunately, if you’re not sure you want any part of the Cloud, it’s already too late. For the past ten years or so, you’ve already given up a great deal of control of your computer to vendors (and less scrupulous people) out there in Cloudland.

How did that happen? Weren’t we all just safely browsing the Internet? Well, yes, we were. Until those guys decided web pages needed to do more. (They claimed it was for our benefit.) What you need to understand is that once we allowed outside “programs” to run on our computer (system, network, enterprise), then any kind of a program could run, including good, bad, indifferent, and just plain evil. Originally, the method was software tools like Sun’s Java and Microsoft’s Active X. And you needn’t ask when it happened. Just look for the first firewalls. (About ten years ago.) Since then, we’ve been under attack (vendors prefer to call it upgrading.)

But we still have a choice, sort of. I know this because as attractive as the Cloud is being painted, a great many (as many as half!) large IT departments are staying away from the Cloud. Their main reason is summed up in a single word: security! That should be your major worry, too. Security, not cost, should always be your primary concern. And you know the price for security: eternal vigilance.


Single Post Navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: