The next great Technology Supernova

Erik Peterson
Jul 6, 2009 · 7 min read
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The four great axioms that govern all information technology innovation are processing speed, storage, connectivity and bandwidth with a fifth super axiom, cost, that defines the innovation threshold for each of these axioms. If you trace every major technological advance back to its starting point you will find the threshold of one of these axioms reaching a new milestone and almost instantly creating a critical mass for “the next big thing”. In many cases crossing one threshold creates pressure that forces innovation across the stack. Sometimes that innovation isn’t possible and ideas collapse back onto themselves unable to reach critical mass. In most cases these ideas don’t die however, they wait, already primed and ready and it’s these ideas that don’t just reach critical mass, they go supernova.

The Internet is the most obvious example of an innovation that has rapidly expanded only to have parts of it collapse back on itself when one of the processing power, storage, connectivity or bandwidth axioms failed to materialize. Indeed the Internet itself only initially fulfilled one of the axioms — connectivity, it wasn’t until processing power, storage and bandwidth started to improve that things got really interesting.

It’s this constant expand, contract life-cycle that has created the environment for supernovas like the Web which spurned the need for improved processing and bandwidth which in turn gave the web its second supernova — Web 2.0.

But not all massive innovations are supernovas. The introduction of improved processing power and storage also gave rise to the era of Client-Server architectures, spurned the introduction of better connectivity and bandwidth solutions and changed the face of IT. But in those cases, these improvements don’t really feel like supernovas but more like improvements on past ideas. Why? It’s because the advent of client/server innovations were focused on business environments which is why the majority of the bandwidth and connectivity innovations have been business-focused (gigabit network connectivity is common at work, but do you have gigabit at home to the Internet?)

Building Pressure

I believe however that the next true supernova is about to arrive and it’s likely going to be the most significant explosion of technology innovation in the last 15 years. All of the innovations of the past 15 years have steadily been improving on on the 4 axioms, but there is one that has while certainly improved has lagged behind the rest — Bandwidth. Right now for most of us, the bandwidth we enjoy is on the edge between just barely enough to painfully slow. The files we download are bigger, the web sites we visit are more complex (and bigger) and the applications we use online are now more bandwidth-constrained than ever before. But this isn’t the only reason why we are on the verge of a breakout.

Over the past 15 years, enormous amounts of energy have been invested in making the most of the bandwidth we have. Compression, caching, filtering, traffic shaping and routing technologies have all improved and been thrown at the problem to slow the inevitable need for more bandwidth. All of these technologies, however, have prevented real innovation and have likely created more problems than they have solved. Case in point I once participated in a conversation with Vint Cerf (who invented TCP/IP with Robert Kahn) where he lamented the priority they had given to saving bandwidth. He asked, “How many problems for the Internet did we create because we wanted to save a few bytes?” Ironically Google has created a new initiative at code.google.com/speed/ that at times seems at odds with Vint’s question, but it’s clear at the very least Google is aware of how much this lack of bandwidth is crippling innovation.

Regardless, it’s this slow and methodical rise in bandwidth demand slowed by the attempts to save a few bytes but without a truly threshold breaking solution that has created a tremendous buildup of what I call “innovation pressure”. You can see this pressure when you observe the effect of things like the iPhone on AT&T’s 3G network, the effect that Cloud Computing services are having on both home and business networks alike and the tsunami that is online video that will likely destroy DVD, Blue-Ray and television broadcast media in a blink of the eye once released. These are however only a few examples.

Enter the Supernova

Now for some bold predictions (or at least hopes) on how it will play out. The next 12 months will see increased market awareness to the bandwidth problem followed by several high profile attempts by Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, and others to address the issue head-on in their own unique way. But these improvements won’t solve the last mile problem and will only buy time until the next phase of evolution arrives — Wireless Broadband.

The wireless providers (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) will start rolling out 4G networks throughout the country with 100Mbits mobile to 1Gbits stationary transfer capabilities, this rollout will be marked by the first viable household wireless broadband devices. This roll-out will awaken the telecom industry. Dark fiber long sitting dormant is going to start coming online to keep up with the increased demand, this is where companies like Cisco and Juniper are going to really clean up as demand for their hardware starts to return to the late 90’s levels. Let's not forget the 700Mhz UHF spectrum that just got opened up with the end of analog TV broadcasts as well. I think how this all get’s used is a wild card right now but it will definitely keep the wireless bandwidth train moving.

All the while, as the bandwidth problems start to crumble we will see an exponential move throughout the market to consume that bandwidth as Cloud Computing initiatives start to hit full swing and both business and consumer cloud computing initiatives take root. Consumer Online backup was just the beginning, the gaming industry will start to offload gameplay and graphics processing, businesses will start to shift some of their massive transactional load into the cloud, and that’s when we reach critical mass. The fall of the bandwidth problem will unlock immediate global scale improvements in processing power and storage. The last hurdle that will check this runaway explosion is connectivity which I think will likely still be working out some kinks, but more limiting is that it’s going to take time to see the human side of the connectivity problem get solved. Once we see close to 80% of the United States get online you can expect to see the next supernova emerge.

Challenges for the Future

I’ll end by laying out a few challenges that I think this future is going to bring with it. These challenges can become opportunities if someone plays their cards right:

  1. Security: What does security even mean anymore? Cloud Computing will bring with it the final death knell of the network perimeter. With no cool security toys to play with, information security teams will have to get back to their roots of ensuring Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability and focus less on tools (controls) and more on the process otherwise why even keep them around?

What do you think will be the next technology supernova?

++Erik

The Future Started Yesterday

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