Aug 212014

Now that the technologies behind our servers and networks have stabilized, IT can look forward to a different kind of constant change

August 11, 2014 – By Paul Venezia – InfoWorld

One of the best and worst parts of IT is that it’s always changing. Day to day, week to week, the only constants are help desk calls from clueless users and, well, change. As time wears on, though, we might even see a shift in the clueless user department — we are well into the time where “I’m not a computer person” holds no water. However glacial this progress may seem, users are getting savvier. But I digress.

If you look at the struggles IT has gone through in the past few decades, you can see several clearly defined eras, each shorter than the last. Coming through to today, eras seem to be measured in mere months, not years.

In the 1970s through the early 1990s we had the era of the mainframe, with S/390s and AS400s running everything, and TN3270 green screens the predominate interface with computers. The 1980s saw the appearance of disruptive PC technology, which would obviously blossom into a wholesale global revolution by the mid-1990s, then combine with the Internet to fuel the single largest and fastest change to civilization in history.

In IT, we rode this wave of cataclysmic upheaval, building all the necessary parts along the way. Moving through the early 2000s, we were still refining and exploring this new world, making all kinds of questionable decisions as we charted a course through unknown waters.

Then the mobile revolution was upon us in the form of the first iPhone and all the subsequent fallout from there. I watched a 75-year-old man fiddling with his iPhone 5 the other day, pulling it out of his pocket and checking his text messages as if he’d been doing that since he was a teenager.

But in IT, we are actually seeing a bit of stasis. I don’t mean that the IT world isn’t moving at the speed of light — it is — but the technologies we use in our corporate data centers have progressed to the point where we can leave them be for the foreseeable future without worry that they will cause blocking problems in other areas of the infrastructure.

Within the course of a decade or so, we saw networking technology progress from 10Base-2 to 10Base-T, to 100Base-T to Gigabit Ethernet. Each leap required systemic changes in the data center and in the corporate network. We were forever replacing switching and routing gear, PC network cards, and so on. Network upgrades occurred almost yearly in some places. Now, with 10G cores and 1G to the desktop in the vast majority of corporate infrastructures, we won’t be doing any forklift upgrades for a long while. SDN is changing the game in the data center, but that’s still not the access layer. We have essentially achieved stasis there — for now.

Another area that has stabilized is server infrastructure. Virtualization has completely revolutionized server deployments, obviously, and we are now in a place where many pitfalls of server administration no longer exist. Where we once walked on tightropes every day doing basic server maintenance, we are now afforded nearly instant undo buttons, as snapshots of virtual servers allow us to roll back server updates and changes with a click. We aren’t straining under the weight of 100-pound, two-socket servers anymore, and the servers we rack and deploy carry a load that would have required several racks of hardware only a few short years ago.

Even the desktop system has changed completely. Gone are the bulky tower PCs that were constantly getting kicked under desks. Even if there isn’t a VDI infrastructure, desktop PCs are tiny and built such that they need little of the maintenance they formerly required. These days, many users want laptops, which are generally cheap and reliable.

Of course, the cloud explosion has eliminated many internal services completely, as long as you’re willing to place a certain amount of critical data and applications in the hands of others. The Application Service Provider pipe dream from the year 2000 is finally reality.

What all this means for IT is not that we can finally sit back and take a break after decades of turbulence, but that we can now focus less on the foundational elements of IT and more on the refinements. We can collectively direct our attention away from rinse-and-repeat network and server overhauls and toward extending the functionality of our computing infrastructure, at least in the corporate data center.

In essence, we have finally built the transcontinental railroad, and now we can use it to completely transform our Wild West. This isn’t a period of stasis, but the launching pad for the next revolution.

It’s sure to be a heck of a ride.

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