An executive from a mobile phone company recently told me the feature most requested by buyers in their fastest growing geography (India) was an LED flashlight. Not a camera, but a flashlight. Edison would never have guessed (obviously). Nor that electricity would one day be on airplanes, lunar landers or deep sea submarines.
Nor would we have imagined that network connectivity and computation would end up on drill bits. Or on ocean going supertankers. And that’s exactly what I was told last week by the CTO of a global energy company. They use sensors on spinning drill bits to extract seismic data, which then guides the bits as they descend into the earth (I had no idea you could actually steer a drill bit). And they do this on offshore drilling platforms. And after they pump crude into supertankers, they use data from sensors spread throughout the ships to monitor vibration, fluid dynamics and rotational physics – to keep the ships, and their precious sloshing cargo, moving safely in the right direction.
I was similarly surprised to hear a global relief agency describe the IT challenges of managing a disaster – starting with a need to supply computing capacity to remote disaster locations without power. More painfully, without desktop system administrators.
And then there’s what Disney’s up to, passing out trackable stuffed dolls to kids in their theme parks, so parents can follow them (as Scott would say, “that’s not Big Brother, that’s Dad…”). By tracking clusters of dolls, the operator can tell parents how long the lines are for a ride, and determine where to place concession stands (in front of waiting patrons, of course). And there’s the wave of DVD players and consumer electronics all becoming network computers – check out the logo on the far right of Panasonic’s new DVD player…
All of the above are examples of putting computing closest to the source of value – and responding in near real time to a changing physical world. No one projected those applications 50 years ago.
So where’s it all headed?
As usual, Greg has some really good thoughts about the biggest issues. But among the most interesting questions of where is computing headed relates to the value of the one place we all thought to be the perfect location for computing: the datacenter.
Now I understand that IT infrastructure has to be put somewhere. But the whole concept of a datacenter is a bit of an anachronism. We certainly don’t put power generators in precious city center real estate, or put them on pristine raised flooring with luxuriant environmentals, or surround them with glass and dramatic lighting to host tours for customers. (But now you know why we put 5 foot logos on the sides of our machines.)
Where do we put power generators? In the engine room. In the basement. Or on the roof. And we don’t host tours (at least in the developed world).
The original intent of the datacenter was to accomodate not computer equipment, but the people who managed it. Operators who needed to mount tapes, sweep chad, feed cards, and physically intervene when things went wrong. Swap a failed board or disk drive, or reboot a system.
Therein lies an interesting quandary – at least from our internal analysis, the availability of IT infrastructure is inversely correlated to foot traffic. The more people allowed in a datacenter, the more likely they are to kick a cord out of the wall, break something trying to fix it, or just bump into things trying to add value.
As the best systems administrators will tell you, the most reliable services are built from infrastructure allowed to fail in place, with resilient systems architecture taking the place of hordes of eager datacenter operators. Instead of sweeping chad, they do periodic sweeps of dead components – or simply let them occupy space until the next facility is brought on-line. (Known as “failing over a datacenter.”)
Very few operators involved, yielding very high service levels. (When there are nearly 1,000,000 people in the world who make their living off eBay, downtime goes well beyond an annoyance.)
Which again begs the question, where’s computing headed? As highlighted by some of the scenarios above, into the real world, certainly.
Perhaps a more interesting question should be – why bother with datacenters at all? Surely it’s time we all started revisiting some basic assumptions…