In 1982, on board a plane bound for China, two executives from a newly founded Unix minicomputer and workstation vendor were discussing how best to summarise their company’s vision.
The phrase that John Gage, one of Sun Microsystems’ founding employees and now its head scientist, came up with is now part of the IT lexicon: “The network is the computer.” And it is truer today than it ever was, highlights Steve Elliott, Sun’s Java and SOA chief technologist.
The original sentiment behind the phrase, says Elliott, was that the value of a computing environment increases exponentially as more nodes are networked together. Today, he says, this is self-evident – more than a billion people are connected to the Internet. The Internet is changing from a network of computing nodes that use the web just to exchange data into a mesh of computing resources and services that combine processing, memory and application functionality from all around the network.
‘Cloud computing’ – as this distributed, Internet-based model of IT is being described – is just a paraphrase of Sun’s term, says Elliott.
To explain the drivers behind this embracing of network computing, Elliott presents a historical view of corporate IT: a story of increasing complexity. At first, hardware came with built-in software – both systems and applications – he explains. Progressively, the software was decoupled from the hardware, the applications from the operating system, the user interface from the applications, and so on. Now, with virtualisation, the operating system has been decoupled from its underlying hardware.
While every new decoupling introduces more flexibility and choice to the IT environment, it also increases the cost and time required to manage the entire stack.
To describe the value proposition of cloud computing to the enterprise, Elliott uses the term ‘red shift’. Derived from a description of the way light from a celestial body is altered depending upon its motion relative to the earth, the red shift metaphor describes the way in which corporate IT has traditionally defied Moore’s Law – the principle that the speed of processors can be doubled every 18 months.
Corporate IT departments have not seen a corresponding doubling in productivity for a number of reasons, including the enormous growth in complexity.
This is evident in the poor rates of server utilisation found in the modern data centre. Red shift describes systems that have failed to keep up with Moore’s Law in performance improvement, says Elliott.
Cloud computing services, he argues, exhibit the very opposite effect – ‘blueshift’. When computing is delivered as scaleable services that can be upgraded without reimplementation, and in such a way that the complexity of computing is concealed from the user, corporate IT can outperform Moore’s Law, Elliott suggests.
One reason for this performance is that in the age of software services, the focus of innovation changes from developing code to reusing and recombining code – in other words, making more intelligent use of the same computing resources.
“We’re moving from a situation in which we create code,” he explains, “to one where we reassemble existing code.”
Elliott argues that when the key to competition-beating business software is the ability to find new, more powerful combinations of code, rather than processor speed and memory, the role of software developers becomes even more important than it is today.
And, he adds, the Internet is revolutionising software development by allowing work to follow talent to all corners of the planet and globally distributed development teams to collaborate on common projects – yet another way in which the network is still radically changing computing.
As Elliott concludes, “there are still a few years left in the tagline yet”.