We Will Pay for Junk Forever

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-03-05 Print this article Print

Earth, like the larger planets, has a complex system of rings

Earth, like the larger planets, has a complex system of rings. Being blessed with intelligent life (or at least, complex, tool-using life), Earth didnt need natural processes to create those ornaments: Earths rings are man-made litter. Legacy software, especially the vast installed base of DOS-era code thats been carried along to Windows 9x, reminds me of those rings around the Earth. We were too shortsighted to do things neatly the first time, and we pay the price 10 or 100 times over with each successive generation of attempted improvements.

We have to build new space systems to survive in a shooting gallery that contains more than 100,000 objects at least one centimeter across—with typical collision speeds of 10 kilometers per second. Imagine a .45-caliber bullet coming at you with 40 times the muzzle velocity of the formerly standard Marine Corps semiautomatic pistol—and, remember, impact energy goes with speed squared.

The International Space Station, recently improved by the addition of the $1.4 billion Destiny lab module, "will be the most heavily shielded spacecraft ever flown," according to NASA Johnson Space Center documents. I hope so; of those centimeter-plus objects that might try to perforate the space stations hull, about 8 percent are at least the size of a regulation softball. Ouch!

We cant simply decide to place future satellites above the 2,000-kilometer altitude that encloses most space junk; its almost as hard to leave behind the old, creaky drivers and other code that inspire even Microsoft to deprecate Windows 9x as an unreliable platform.

We can, however, look at the costs of protecting future IT projects from the space junk of previous efforts; we can choose to consider those "shielding" costs when we evaluate higher-| altitude IT options.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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