I still find it humorous when people question the need for advances in hardware and software, especially after hearing such dubious statements as:

  • “We expect to sell 150,000 of these things over the product’s lifecycle.” (IBM executive in 1981 talking about personal computers.)
  • “Users will never need more than 640 K of RAM.” (Microsoft executive in 1982 talking about MS-DOS.)
  • “No one really needs a 1-GHz processor.” (Most of you talking to your head wonk who is trying to justify his new desktop budget for this fiscal year.)

In fact, we always find ways to use new technologies and then we forget how we got along without them before. In the next 12 months, you will see advances in hardware, software, networking, and communications technology that will force you to rethink the way you design and implement systems for your companies.

To make it easy to categorize these technology advancements and their anticipated impact, I’ve grouped them into three broad areas for discussion:

  • Running virtually anything
  • Working virtually anywhere
  • Being virtually everywhere

Next week we’ll look at how wireless technology can be applied over a larger area to provide ubiquitous, high-speed connections. We’ll also talk about how you can be “virtually” anywhere.
Running virtually anything
Recent product announcements have begun to challenge the notion that we can only run one operating system and one set of microcode on a chip—mostly Windows on Intel. Although there have been Intel-compatible chips available (notably AMD and Cyrix), they’re still the proverbial “skin irritation” on Intel’s “posterior.”

But with new technologies from companies like TransMeta, this may change. TransMeta’s concept is to create a chip that can execute any instruction set. Thus, a TransMeta chip can be made to look like a Motorola 68000 series chip and run Macintosh software, or it can look like an Intel Pentium III and run Windows or Linux.

If they’re successful, TransMeta could radically change the way we upgrade our systems. Think about the ability to download the new “Pentium IV” instruction set into your TransMeta chip instead of upgrading your whole system. No, it’s not there yet, but concepts like these could very well change the way chips are designed in the future. (Now you know why we need the 1 GHz and higher chip speeds.)

Another use for this speed (and glimpse of future technology available today) comes from a little company called VMWare . For those of you old enough to remember, another little company called IBM had some mainframe operating systems called VM (virtual machine) and MVS (multiple virtual systems) that allowed you to run multiple independent images of different operating systems at the same time on big, fast iron. Each of these operating systems shared access to the underlying system hardware—negotiated by VM or MVS.

VMWare has done the same for Intel-based computers. Now you can have two totally independent Intel-based operating systems running simultaneously on the same machine. For example, I have Windows 98 SE and two copies of Windows 2000 Advanced Server running on the same machine. This allows me to develop software using Microsoft Visual Studio on Windows 98 and be able to test a three-tier application by running the business layer components in one virtual Windows 2000 system and the data access components on another virtual Windows 2000 system.

All these systems are running on the same box at the same time. To make it even more interesting, I can load a copy of Linux into a virtual machine and install Oracle or DB2 for Linux to test connectivity with my business tier objects.

All of the virtual machines have access to resources (CD, printer, network card, ports, etc.) in the base machine through the host (or first) operating system. Each of the virtual machines has its own disk space partition (up to 2 GB) and can either have its own virtual network interface (to the point of asking the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol [DHCP] service to give a different Internet Protocol [IP] address to each virtual instance) or to share a network interface inside the box only. This product is a boon for software developers, network engineers, beta testers, and others who need to test interoperability of various operating systems or who like to have clean builds and “beta” builds on the same machine.

It’s also a harbinger of things to come. By combining the morphing capability of the TransMeta technology, the virtual machine technology of products like VMWare and the hardware engineering that allows companies to build 1 GHz and faster machines with 1 GB or more of RAM affordably, we should one day soon be able to run any software on any machine from anywhere.

In the interim, we’ll have to settle for the VMWare option for our hardware configurations. But if we can choose to run any software we want to run, at least we can choose to be anywhere when we run the software we have.

Working virtually anywhere
Each of us has been through the office shuffle. It’s not just about moving desks and credenzas. The real problems are the wiring issues. With people moving around, companies growing and adding space and companies looking at “hoteling” instead of assigning full-time offices, the challenges of cost-effectively wiring offices continue to grow. But new wireless standards are changing the way we look at connecting offices.

Lucent, Cisco, and others have released wireless local area network (LAN) technology using the 802.11 11-megabit wireless standard. Using this technology, you can allow workers within a building to move around freely while avoiding the high cost of wiring offices with Category 5 wiring.

In fact, by combining wireless LAN technology and wireless phones you can allow your workers to go anywhere in your building (and sometimes outside) and still be able to work. This same technology is also being deployed outside the building in commercial and residential areas to provide wide area networks (WANs).

In fact, the Lucent solution will allow you to use the same radio cards (with different access points and antennas) to build both a local and wide area network. This is rapidly becoming the preferred way to connect campuses, both college and company.

Microsoft is also in the process of configuring their corporate campus with this wireless technology. When finished, a Microsoft employee will be able to be within 300 feet of any building and get a network connection.

I worked with a college in southern Ohio to design and implement a wireless campus network. They use Microsoft Terminal Server and Windows CE devices to allow their students to roam the campus freely but maintain network connections. Their vision is to give the student a different experience whether they’re in the cafeteria (wide-open access), in the library (library resources and internet access only), or in the classroom (access only to the PowerPoint slides for that day’s lecture and shared word processing for notes).
Give us your predictions of the future virtual office and the technology you will use. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.