Is the Pendulum Winding Down?

For most of my 30 years in IT, people have been noting an apparent long, slow pendulum swing between centralized and distributed computing paradigms. From mainframes to timesharing to PC's to client-server computing, the pendulum has been easy to discern, though harder to explain.

It's comforting to imagine that anything in our industry is as stable as the tides, and that our current focus on cloud computing will eventually yield to excitement about something local, perhaps cybernetic implants.  But a comforting myth is not a law of nature, and I think the pendulum is slowing to a halt.  Sometimes a pendulum's oscillation reflects two inadequate extremes, and a fully satisfactory alternative can stop it.

Nothing will ever beat a local device for rich, responsive interaction.  But the average user has no patience or tolerance for maintenance activities -- storage, backup, and system administration in general. Such tasks are best accomplished by remote servers, professionally administered. Traditionally, application designers have had to trade off the speed and responsiveness of a local application against the reliable remote maintenance of a server-based application.

That tradeoff will soon be as obsolete as EBCDIC. Today, we have ultraportable, ultrapowerful local machines.  We have near-ubiquitous high-speed connectivity. And, to insulate even corporate users from the problems and complexities of running reliable services, we have the emerging paradigm of Cloud Computing.

Cloud Computing technology isn't fundamentally new. Most cloud-style applications were first demonstrated in the 80's.  Yet as a participant in those early projects, I can tell you that much of what we did was amazingly cool on a local campus, but completely impractical for the wider environment. Imagine using your iphone at 14.4 kilobaud and you'll get an inkling of the problem.

But today, the combination of powerful local machines, ubiquitous fast networks, and maturing cloud services allows businesses to look at their data processing needs in a radically different light.  A business that has moved its IT functions to the cloud should never have to worry about system administration beyond the most localized activities, such as adding and deleting user accounts, or keeping the local network running.

Of course I'm not talking here about companies that write or operate complex systems; I'm talking about businesses using services that are not part of their own mission or expertise.  And the issues of privacy and security will, in any conceivable architecture, always demand constant vigilance from providers and thoughtful attention from users, administrators, managers, providers -- pretty much everyone.

Still, I think that the promised land is in sight. Most of us will find the cloud world simpler, more efficient, and more pleasant to use than what has come before -- unless you've stumbled onto a bad service provider. That's probably the biggest danger in the next few years, as the cloud market sorts itself out.  For now, a trusted guide is still an awfully good idea.

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