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Riding the third wave of the Internet age

By Stefano Mattiello

The bigger and better computers – and the Internet – become, the harder it is to improve them.Massive leaps and bounds since the Seventies have elevated the technology industry to a point where further advancement demands a radical shift in design. The limits of current technology are being reached. If the development of computers and the Internet is to continue, a new approach is imperative.

The sheer scale of this challenge is like nothing we have encountered before. We’re facing a new wave of technological advancement, a tsunami of challenges to overcome.

And, our skills are about to be severely tested.

If we look back at where we have come from, the first Internet wave was a network of computers that swelled to encompass hundreds of millions of systems, all connected,
all continually exchanging data.

The second wave, the one we’re riding now, can be described as a network of devices that embed computers. It’s made up of wireless phones, two-way pagers and other handsets, game players, teller machines, and even cars. In short, this network has billions of potential connections.

But the third wave is a tsunami. Even as we create it, we need to prepare ourselves for the staggering scale this wave presents. It’s a network of trillions of devices. Things you’d hardly think of as computers.

These devices are so-called sub-IP (Internet Protocol) gadgets and products, as mundane as environmental sensors and radio-frequency identification tags.

In the first wave, machines connected via the Internet; people tapped in when they could. The second wave is making the connection more or less continuous. The third promises to make it virtually indistinguishable from the various aspects of daily life.

Soon we’ll be adding miniature ID tags to all kinds of products, so we can instantly discover the price of an item, where and when it was made, how it was delivered, and
a host of other useful data. We’ll be able to track in-transit temperature fluctuations that can affect the expiration date of a medication or the freshness of food.

Presently, these tags cost about R4 to make; as the cost comes down, we’ll begin to see them on more and more items. Each will have its own digital signature and a presence in cyberspace, which promises to enhance the efficiency of the whole supply chain, from maker to user to recycler.

This is science, not fiction.

But: The unprecedented scale of this third wave, and the incredible diversity of devices and interfaces, makes the accompanying challenge quite obvious: How on earth is anyone supposed to manage all this?

That’s why we have to rethink the way we design computers. If we don’t find new ways of reasoning about distributed systems, we may find ourselves swamped or eating sand when the tsunami hits.

Over the past couple of decades, the definition of a system has remained constant amid rapid refinements. The components have always included microprocessors, disks, memory and network input/output. In the decades ahead, things will look very different: Computers, storage systems and IP networks will be the components. The Internet will become the computer.

We must learn – and are in fact learning – to virtualise the elements of the network to create a single pool of resources that can be dynamically allocated, matching resources to services as required. This will enable us to automate change management, reduce complexity, better utilise resources, and lower total cost of ownership.

What’s more, virtualisation will make it possible to take distributed applications from concept to wide-scale deployment far more quickly. Just select the resources you need and light up the application. It should be no more difficult than running an application on a single computer today.

With this new architecture, computers won’t attach to networks; they will be built from networks. This shift enables radically higher-scale microprocessors, exabytes of
storage, terabits of bandwidth and billions of IP connections – all of which will be imperative as we move into the Net’s third wave.

Stefano Mattiello is MD of Sun Microsystems in sub-Saharan Africa. Visit their web site at http://www.sun.com/rsa

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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