20 Years of IT History: Connecting Devices, Data and People

The story of the past 20 years of technology has been all about connecting the dots between computers, data and the people who use them.

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1996: The Dotcoms

Sun Microsystems formed the JavaSoft group in order to develop the Java technology. Java, a language optimized for writing programs intended to run over a network, was (and is) a big deal, but the news of the year was not technical but cultural. This was the year when irrational exuberance slid behind the wheel, the year the dotcom balloon broke free of its moorings on planet Earth.

1987-89

PS/2, NeXT and OOPs, Netware 3

1990-92

Archie, Linux, Windows

1993-95

Mosaic, Spam and More, Convergence

1996-98

The Dotcoms, Distributed Compution, XML

1999-01

Wireless and Y2K, Millennial Change and Angst, Blogs

2002-04

Sarbanes-Oxley, Virtualization, ERP Hangover

2005-07

Multicore Processors, The Network, The iPhone

See more of CIO's 20th anniversary.

Much of the fever came from the spreading conviction that old business models were dying: Why would anyone ever want to go to a store anymore? How could a business compete if it was carrying the overhead of a brick-and-mortar shop? All this meant that anyone wanting a return on his investment had to find a place to park it in cyberspace. Somewhere. Anywhere.

1997: Distributed Computing

Jeff Lawson of Distributed.net showed how the Internet could be used to harness a very large number of geographically dispersed microcomputers to attack a single problem—in this case, a ciphertext released as a challenge by RSA (with a $10,000 prize attached). Today distributed nets are being used to solve problems in protein folding, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, financial modeling and many other problems. Under the name grid computing, the concept has become a small but important industry, offering companies needing lots of cycles a cheap alternative to supercomputers.

1998: XML

XML, a markup language optimized for the Internet, supporting most known human scripts and compatible across a wide range of languages and platforms, increased the power and capacities of the Net.

1999: Wireless and Y2K

Time magazine named Jeff Bezos of Amazon its “Person of the Year,” writing that “e-business is rapidly replacing the traditional kind for almost any purchase you can imagine.”

1987-89

PS/2, NeXT and OOPs, Netware 3

1990-92

Archie, Linux, Windows

1993-95

Mosaic, Spam and More, Convergence

1996-98

The Dotcoms, Distributed Compution, XML

1999-01

Wireless and Y2K, Millennial Change and Angst, Blogs

2002-04

Sarbanes-Oxley, Virtualization, ERP Hangover

2005-07

Multicore Processors, The Network, The iPhone

See more of CIO's 20th anniversary.

Also, on July 21, Steve Jobs demoed the first cheap wireless modem. Wireless networking did not take the world by surprise. For years everyone had understood that the need to embody connectivity in physical wires was an immense constraint on the growth of networking (and a fatal one, in the case of mobile devices). People had been hammering away at the problem for at least a decade, and a few very expensive solutions were running here and there.

What was different about Apple’s AirPort was that it was cheap enough for mass adoption. Over the next several years, wireless LANs began to crop up everywhere. They didn’t necessarily work perfectly; the technology came with many headaches, beginning with security and dependability, and CIOs were to spend many hours hammering out the bugs. They did not, however, do much of that in 1999, for that year CIOs were preparing for the imminent end of civilization, generally known as the Y2K bug.

2000: Millennial Change and Angst

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First, Y2K went off without a hitch, proving that luck is on the side of those smart enough to be working on well-posed problems and establishing ERP as the way businesses organized themselves.

Second, an Internet company (Google) developed a well-grounded solution to the problem of making money over the Net.

Third, the culture decided that the Internet did not mean the end of business as we had known it, and everyone rose, stretched and sold off their tech stocks. Good-bye, Pets.com, Chipshot.com, and the rest.

2001: Blogs

People had been writing diaries on the Net for years, but the form had never taken off. In the late 1990s, editors appeared with several subtle enhancements, including browser-based website editing, comments, permalinks, blogrolls and trackbacks. These fixes turned Web diaries into blogs, and by 2001 blogs had become one of the great networking phenomena of the age.

The development of blogs illustrates a subtle point about connectivity. Conventional measurements of networks count nodes and bandwidth, but connectivity has at least a third dimension: adaptedness. Every object in a network has a trajectory of enhancements that allow it to work better and do more in a networked environment. One of the several ways in which connectivity is self-extending is that it provides an environment that selects for greater adaptivity to networking. As objects move down this path, as they mature, connectivity surges, even if nodes and bandwidth stay the same...which, of course, they never do.

2002: Sarbanes-Oxley

A number of accounting scandals from leading-edge tech companies (Enron, WorldCom, and the like) led to legislation designed to remake the financial reporting practices of public companies from top to bottom. While Sox, as the act came to be known, explicitly targeted the behaviors of CEOs and CFOs, it probably changed the lives of CIOs as much or more.

1987-89

PS/2, NeXT and OOPs, Netware 3

1990-92

Archie, Linux, Windows

1993-95

Mosaic, Spam and More, Convergence

1996-98

The Dotcoms, Distributed Compution, XML

1999-01

Wireless and Y2K, Millennial Change and Angst, Blogs

2002-04

Sarbanes-Oxley, Virtualization, ERP Hangover

2005-07

Multicore Processors, The Network, The iPhone

See more of CIO's 20th anniversary.

Sox required that every act in a company’s financial life be documented and that every document be auditable, forcing CIOs to supervise a massive increase in documentation and in the control of that documentation. Change management, in particular, went from something the CIO could do on his or her own in an afternoon (for reasons best known to the CIO) to an agenda item for the Change Management Committee.

The scary part is that, given how integrated IT has become with financial reporting, if a CEO or CFO were to be indicted for Sox violations, the CIO is at risk of being sucked into the same prosecution, as a coconspirator.

On the other hand, CIOs are now right at the heart of the enterprise. The bean counters used to complain that IT was all cost and no benefit. Thanks to Sox, IT can now point to a benefit the most obtuse bean counter is likely to appreciate: keeping him out of jail.

2003: Virtualization

Imagine you have two (or more) IT objects, A and C. You want to hook A and C together so they can send signals to each other. Alas, they are incompatible, perhaps because they come from different manufacturers. Virtualization is the business of making a third object, B, that you slip between A and C to fool each of the original objects into thinking the other is speaking its own language, creating compatibility where before there was none.

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The IT objects could be anything at all: servers, operating systems, routers, applications, hard disks, caches, whatever. Virtualization allows you to hook anything up to anything else and force the combo to work harmoniously.

Starting in 1999, a company named VMware committed itself to the technology. The early years were slow. People complained that everything had to be done twice (first by A or C and then by B), which meant that everything took twice as many cycles and burned up twice as many resources. The process added complexity. But by 2003 the world was beginning to understand how versatile and powerful a solution this was. One of signs of this dawning comprehension came at the end of 2003 when EMC, a huge storage company, bought a big piece of VMware. In 2007, VMware went public and, in a generally listless market, had the biggest tech stock debut since Google. Virtualization had arrived.

2004: ERP Hangover

In 2004 (or thereabouts), enterprise resource planning (ERP), fell off the hype cliff and (perhaps this is the fairest way to put it) became subject to the net of its positives and its negatives.

ERP is the art of framing a single formal definition for every object and act in a company so that everything can be managed together, top down. For instance, pre-ERP, each department or division in a company usually defined the term “employee” differently. These differences might be tacit and hard to define and perhaps not even known to top management, but they would usually matter. Once ERP came to that company, “employee” would mean the same everywhere, and every aspect of that identity would be explicit and transparent. There would be one database for the entire company and one interface to that database. A manager setting policies for “employees” would know exactly what he or she was doing. ERP is an instrument for bringing companies to a higher degree of integration.

The great virtue of ERP lies in how well it supports compliance with companywide policies. A given change just radiates across the company, with every division learning about it at the same time and in the same way. In the case of Sarbanes-Oxley, which mandates a specific framework for financial reporting, ERP seems essential to getting to compliance at all.

All good. However, as experience with the technology accumulated, downsides swam into view, among them a loss of flexibility and weakest-link exposure risks—if one department enters information inaccurately or imprecisely, everybody suffers. There were others.

ERP is connectivity taken to the extreme; and while the program has applications that are important and useful, it also teaches that there are limits. Connectivity is not the solution to all problems.

Sometimes it is even best avoided.

2005: Multicore Processors

AMD, the microprocessor manufacturer, announced the first multicore microprocessor. Shortly thereafter, Intel follows suit.

1987-89

PS/2, NeXT and OOPs, Netware 3

1990-92

Archie, Linux, Windows

1993-95

Mosaic, Spam and More, Convergence

1996-98

The Dotcoms, Distributed Compution, XML

1999-01

Wireless and Y2K, Millennial Change and Angst, Blogs

2002-04

Sarbanes-Oxley, Virtualization, ERP Hangover

2005-07

Multicore Processors, The Network, The iPhone

See more of CIO's 20th anniversary.

Multicore computing is understood as a new solution to the problem of improving processor performance, but it might be much more than that.

For decades computer scientists have known there’s an alternative to traditional computing: having many processors working on the same problem at the same time. But programming for parallel processing is much harder than programming for a single processor, and that difficulty has discouraged us from exploring that technology.

Truth is, we never really had to go there because single processors got faster so quickly, we never really needed an alternative.

However, ironically, it’s the need for processor speed that is now forcing us to figure out parallel computing. The faster processors run, the more power they consume and the more heat they generate. Both of these are limiting factors. Because multicore gets its edge by running more processors, not faster ones, it allows the core to stay cool and energy-efficient. Many analysts expect multicore to dominate processor design from now on, with the number of connected cores per motherboard rising steadily as we get better at solving the programming problems presented by this new architecture. A decade from now parallel programming will be the standard and perhaps we will be a lot closer to matching the skills of the human brain.

2006: The Network

The growth in average traffic level (75%) outpaced the growth of capacity (47%) on the world’s Internet backbones for the third consecutive year.

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