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From Essential To Invisible

What is technology? Pose that question to 100 people and you will certainly get 100 different answers. Before you read on, close your eyes and think of three things you would characterize as technology. Odds are that you did not think of mundane everyday things such as air conditioning, an internal combustion engine or even electricity. These are, after all, everyday things that, although once revolutionary, have become thoroughly ensconced into our lives and have therefore "disappeared" by virtue of their ubiquity. In effect, technology is a catch-all word that encompasses myriad aspects and components of our daily lives and describes a constantly evolving set of concepts, ideas, and things. Technology has a different meaning for each of us because it represents, in our consciousness, the sum of all things that did not exist when we were growing up. While our grandparents might think of the good old black handset from Ma Bell as technology, we are hard pressed to think of it that way.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in Information Technology. A new technology appears, revolutionizes its particular area, becomes a "de facto" standard and promptly disappears into the background while being universally disseminated. It started with the lowest layers of functionality and is quickly making its way into its most visible components.

Take for example the cabling infrastructures in most of our IT networks. Nowadays, you will be hard pressed to find anything other than a standard four twisted pair cabling configuration. It may be evolving from Cat 5 to 6, 6E or even 7 but gone are the days of coaxial, thinnet, or IBM Type 1 cables. If we move another layer up, you will find that Ethernet has become the standard networking transport. We continue to change from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps to GigE or even 10GigE but the one thing you will not find is a new Token Ring deployment. Again, move up the stack into the networking protocol arena and you will, no doubt encounter TCP/IP almost exclusively. IPX, IBM-SNA, 3278, NetB, AppleTalk and DecNet are now vestigial remnants of another era prior to the establishment of the Internet as the universal data transport mechanism.

Moving into the computer itself, you will find tremendous consolidation taking place at many levels. In the microprocessor arena, the number of viable options has been substantially reduced over the last five years. As the miniaturization of components continues to progress, the complexity and cost of chip fabrication continues to rise, prompting hardware manufacturers to concentrate on fewer and fewer architectures. As Intel, and more recently AMD, continue to push the processing power envelope with their X86 and EPIC (Itanium) architectures, only IBM is capable of competing at the highest levels of performance, albeit with a price penalty. Left by the wayside are most of the once promising RISC chips like MIPS, PA-RISC, Alpha and UltraSparc.

Over the next three years, we will experience similar consolidation in the Operating System arena. In the server environments, the continuing maturation of both the Windows and Linux platforms will inexorably relegate all other operating systems to legacy and niche plays while in the desktop environment Linux implementations will join Apple's OS in the 5 percent share and helping us keep Microsoft from becoming complacent.


Which brings us to the application layer. In the human interface arena, we will continue to see a migration to browser or applet-based applications operating across the hall, across the country or across the world. In the server to server environments, we will see the continuing migration to XML-based systems that will leverage Web services technologies to offer up heretofore unheard levels of interoperability and will create an abstraction layer between most virtual services and their origination on the planet.

In the short to medium term, we will see the emergence of on-demand computing combined with shared storage pools, first within a single datacenter (some will argue that we already have this) followed by intra-company, multiple locations, shared environments (again one might argue that it already exists with some early implementers) and eventually migrating to CSPs (computing service providers) and SSPs (storage service providers) that provide our organizations with utility-like services that promptly disappear into the background.

Now, at first you might be tempted to ask how all of this relates to our industry, but the truth is that as all of these technologies emerge and become ubiquitous invisible standards, their influence on the distribution of moving images will be profound.

The current paradigm, although fast changing, is still largely predicated on scheduled passive viewing. The combination of ubiquitous connectivity with interoperability standards across the globe will surely bring the ability to increase the reach while simultaneously increasing the richness of the interaction between content providers and content consumers, necessitating the transformation of our broadcast infrastructures from static, deterministic delivery mechanisms into flexible, non deterministic distribution engines. We will tackle that transformation in my next column. You can count on IT!