I have been on vacation this week and found myself waxing

philosophic about how computing has evolved in our organizations over the years

and where computing is headed over the next five to ten years. I can’t remember

exactly when he said it, but John Gage’s statement, “The Network IS the

Computer,” becomes more and more of a reality each day.

If you are old enough to remember the days before the PC,

you might recall a computing environment that was central to a particular

machine. Depending on the size of your organization, all of your computing

applications ran on this single machine or a few more like it. It was very

powerful, centrally controlled, and—except for what some people would now deem

primitive word processing and calendaring—was focused on running core business

applications. Management of this type of system was pretty straightforward and

generally highly regimented.

When the PC revolution came along, it was responding to a

computing environment that had little time for the needs of the rest of the

organization or couldn’t keep up with the demands of the core areas; people

found that they had a device on which they could do many of the things they had

always needed to do—they just had to get the data from the mainframe and

manipulate it. History has shown that this was, in fact, very empowering for

most organizations, but central IT was not quick to embrace the concept.

Soon afterwards, you had the advent of PC networking and

client-server computing, and it wasn’t too long before many organizations had

competing computing infrastructures within their organizations: one mainframe-centric,

the other, client-server. The problem with client server was it was “messy.” It

tended to sprout up all over the organization, rather than being guided by a

central strategy; after all, it was part of the “personal” computer revolution—and

it suffered to some degree because of the way it was created and implemented,

rather than being centrally planned.

Then came the era of control.

Many organizations looked around and realized what a mess they had created.

Mind you, it was a productive mess, but not as productive as it could have

been. Magazines featured many articles and advertisements for products and

methods of getting one’s computing environment “under control.” This went on

for some time and then the Internet burst on to the scene.

When the Internet started to become more mainstream in the

late 80’s, computing seemed to explode in organizations, and these messy networks

got bigger and bigger—and more importantly—complex. The Internet brought many

benefits but added security headaches. The difficulty of managing a network

increased due to viruses, worms, malware, bots, Trojans, and more.

The Internet phenomenon grew in the 90’s and the world didn’t

end in 2000, thanks to the hard work

of IT professionals who did not panic under the pressure of tremendous hype.

At about this time, the browser-based application started to really hit the

forefront. Forget the fat client; let’s have all of development be

browser-centric. And, for the most part, it has been a good thing. It is clear

that as the tools mature, we seem to be headed inexorably to a future in which

the majority of applications will be Web-based (see the success of eBAY, PayPal,

Google, and Salesforce.com, as examples) and connectivity is almost ubiquitous.

Now, with the potential for grid computing, which is defined

as “a collection of low cost network, storage, computing and

software elements, lashed together to do work that historically required very

expensive dedicated proprietary technologies,” we have an interesting

situation: IT’s desire to reconsolidate in order to get things back under control by moving things back to a

centralized structure where applications are delivered rather
than run on the machines they are presented on – brings us right back where
we started.

Depending on the maturity of organizations, I see a movement

that will pick up speed over the next few years in which companies will want to

further eliminate the complexities of their IT environment by having all their

applications, including the desktop, be delivered by an applications service

provider, or by going completely thin client and becoming an ASP themselves, or

a combination of both. Other than for gaming (and I’m not so sure that the same

thing won’t happen there), people may one day wonder exactly what a PC was for in

the first place.