A Higher Perspective

The most positive changes came from Web computing, ubiquitous connectivity and open-source development.

For me, the carnival and chaos that is technology journalism is coming to a close. When at a distance, one can see farther, so in one of my last columns in this space, Id like to take a look back—and forward.

Since I started at eWEEK in 1996, the three developments that have brought about the most positive change have been Web computing, ubiquitous connectivity and open-source development. These should continue to be core to your IT strategic planning in the next few years.

The Web was in its infancy in 1996. In my role as eWEEKs database analyst, I took my first looks at Web application servers back then because their main mission in life was to write Web database front ends. These application servers were primitive efforts, but their main purpose was ever so right. Applications and the data they contain should be reachable from wherever users are. HTML, even with its many problems, has provided a flexible and adaptable framework to host many an application.

Web applications are certainly more appropriate for some tasks than others. That original category of database-based forms applications is still an ideal match (a technology shift that sounded the death knell for thick client/server development tools), but any kind of structured, task-oriented interaction with an application works well over the Web.

Highly interactive, nonlinear tasks are better run on the local desktop, but these are atypical in corporate IT, and the gains in information accessibility and desktop simplification due to Web computing continue to pay off.

The shift to Web computing necessarily led to great advances in understanding stateless programming models, an advance that in turn allowed for large, loosely coupled computing clusters to move out of the fringes of computer science and into production environments.

In turn, during the past five years, databases have been fundamentally redesigned to work in highly scalable, loosely coupled designs in response to the way the new breed of Web applications were accessing them. Technology change in this space has come full circle. This has become the right model for corporate applications needing to support large numbers of users, whether they are Web-based or not.

Ubiquitous connectivity is another powerful dynamic that is not going away. With data and applications now on powerful, highly scalable server clusters and application interfaces designed in portable, platform-neutral formats, when theres a productivity gap nowadays, its due to lack of connectivity.

Through the 90s, corporate networking departments focused heavily on backbone capacity. That focus was misplaced. Whats emerged as more important is easy access to connectivity. Thirsty people are better served by water fountains placed in each hallway than by a fire hose available in the next building.

The focus on mobile devices also has been overstated. Web-enabled phones, for example, have been a big flop. For a certain kind of worker, continual e-mail access makes sense, but as an overall corporate IT strategy, campus-range wireless coupled with sharable or transportable computers is more compelling.

The open-source and free-software movements have irrevocably changed the IT landscape in just a few short years. Great infrastructure products like the various Linux distributions, Apache Web server, Samba file server, and the KDE and GNOME desktops have matured tremendously in an astonishingly short period of time.

But more importantly, those movements have reinvigorated IT users, making them more aggressive in demanding that technology suppliers meet their specific needs. Open source has blown open the complacency and intransigence prevalent among the vendors in the 1990s IT investment boom. The ability to choose more freely and with a more activist attitude will be of great help in these leaner times.

Where am I headed? I will be going to seminary starting this fall to seek new avenues to use my technical and writing skills in meaningful ways. It has been a privilege to interact both with the brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs who envisioned a postindustrial society and with the eWEEK readers who are actually bringing it about. Journalism is, at its heart, truth-telling, and I hope youve found that in my writing and will find it in my final columns.