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?)
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:
- 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?
- Privacy: If your data is not local anymore where is it and who has access to it? What happens in the legal realm? If the legal system doesn’t evolve its sense of personal property to include data and capabilities that exist in the cloud then the ideal that you are protected from unlawful search and seizure is effectively dead. What about borders, there are a lot of legal systems to contend with. But wait, it gets worse. Many providers already limit what you can do with their services (no SPAM, no porn, etc…) but what happens when they start to limit what we compute? Will governments step in and try and monitor for anyone simulating nuclear explosions for example? With computing done remotely in the future, it’s not just your data you need to worry about but what are you computing with it. Thought Crimes, anyone? Your data and the things you do with it including information about you need to become your personal property no matter where it’s kept.
- Interoperability: It won’t be in a providers best interest to make it easy for you to switch but without the ability to switch things will stagnate and cloud monopolies will inevitably form. A dangerous sign already is that the open-source community has concluded it won’t be able to play a significant role in cloud computing other than creating free software for the providers because ultimately it costs big bucks to run a data center. It will be hard for providers to make the leap to realize they need to be open. I’m not a fan of regulation but regulation is necessary when market forces will never push the market to do the right thing…this one is a tough one. The Jericho forum I think has the best chance to advance this agenda, if you are on the consumer side of things, you should give them your support.
- Business Continuity: If your entire business is dependent on the cloud, what happens when the cloud lets you down? Truthfully this one will solve itself and I think it’s just the last of the old IT guard fighting change. People don’t need to get to your IT data center, they need to get to your data and applications, when you put them in the cloud, you move them closer to the consumer. However what happens when you are the primary consumer? Having your Internet connection go down could kill you. It’s all about bandwidth and connectivity at this point and these issues will get worked out during the supernova but there will be some spectacular disasters along the way I’m sure.
What do you think will be the next technology supernova?