Sunday, 22 June 2014

Plus ca change

I’ve worked with mainframes for over 30 years and I’m used to seeing trends moving in one direction and then, a few years later, going in the opposite direction. Each initiative gets sold to us as something completely new and the solution that we’ve been waiting. I imagine you share my experience. I originally worked on green screens with all the processing taking place on the mainframe. In fact, I can remember decks of cards being punched and fed into the mainframe. I can remember the excitement of everyone having their own little computer when PCs first came out. I can remember client/server being the ultimate answer to all our computing issues. Outsourcing, not outsourcing – we could wander down Memory Lane like this for a long time.

What always amazes me is when I’m working with sites that are predominantly Windows-based, and they still get that frisson of excitement over an idea that I think is pretty commonplace. It was only a few years ago (well maybe about five) that the Windows IT teams were all excited about VMware and the ability to virtualize hardware. They couldn’t believe mainframes had been doing that since the 1960s.

Then there was the excitement about using Citrix and giving users simple Linux terminals rather than more expensive PCs. Citrix have a host of products, including GoToMeeting – their conferencing software. With Citrix desktop solutions, all the applications live on the server rather than on each individual computer. It means you can launch a browser on your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or whatever device you like that has a browser, and see a Windows-looking desktop and all the usual applications. So, it’s just like a dumb terminal connecting to a mainframe, which does all the work and looks after all the data storage. Nothing new there!

And now Microsoft are selling Office 365, which, once you’ve paid your money, means that all the applications live in the cloud somewhere, and so does the data. It seems that all subscribers are like remote users, dialling into an organization’s mainframe that could be located in a different country or on a different continent. Looked at another way, IT departments are in many ways outsourcing their responsibilities – and we all remember when outsourcing was on everyone’s mind.

Office 365 seems like a very mature product and one whose time is about to come. You get more than just the familiar Office products like Word and Excel. You get SharePoint, Lync, and Exchange (and I’m talking about the Enterprise version of Office 365). Lync lets users chat to each other – a bit like using MSN used to. And SharePoint provides you with an intranet as well file and document management capabilities. You get Outlook, Publisher (my least-favourite piece of software), Access (the database), and InfoPath (used for electronic forms). You also get a nicely integrated Yammer – Microsoft’s Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) tool. There’s also PowerBI, a suite of business intelligence and self-serve data mining tools coming soon. This will integrate with Excel, so users can use the Power Query tool to create spreadsheets and graphs using public and private data, and also perform geovisualization with Bing Maps data using the Power Map tool.

And while the actual tools that are available on these different platforms and computing models, over time, are different, it’s the computing concepts that I’m suggesting come and go and come again, and go again! It’s like a battle between centralization and decentralization. Everyone likes to have that computing power on their phone or tablet, but whenever you need to do some real work, you connect (usually using a browser) to a distant computing monolith. So, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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