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Thinking Out Loud

What is a computer, anyway?

What is a computer, anyway?

Everyone knew what computers looked like in the 70s.

They were big boxes with whirring spools of tape and flashing lights.

You could actually photograph a big mainframe machine.

And you could confidently nod your head and say to yourself :

“Yes, I know what a computer is. I know that my information is stored in that BIG box in the corner of the STERILE room”.

“A computer is something that I put raw data into, and it has ways to store and reshuffle that information and give me back some useful information.”

The Personal Computer was the first major shift – the PC revolutionised computing, but you could still hold on to the same concept as before.

“Yes, I know what a computer is”. “I know that all my information is stored in that LITTLE box in the corner of the LIVING room”.

“A computer is something that I put raw data into, and it has ways to store and reshuffle that information and give me back some useful information.”

Computer Networks were the second major shift – you could set up a network in your business, or university, to wire all your little boxes together.

You could send text files and images from one to the other, and collaborate with others on your team.

Or you could put a big expensive hard drive in one place, and have little boxes grab copies from another building.

At this point you could draw a little map of your network, with boxes and wires connecting them.

“I still know what a computer is. My PERSONAL information is stored in my LITTLE box, but I can SHARE some information with my coworkers”.

“A network is something that I put raw data into, and it has ways to store and reshuffle that information and give me back some useful information.”

The third major shift was, of course, the Internet, the Inter-Network, that wired one University network to other University networks.

Then the military, and government got onboard. Then a few companies, then the general public.

At this point, your little diagram of how the boxes were connected got way too complicated.

You’d have to draw in about 1000 computers, switches, telephone lines, cables, and various other components between your little box and the box that held all the words and pictures of a web page. So people simplified the diagram.

They drew their little box, and the modem that connected it to the Internet.

At the other end, they’d draw the web server that contained words and pictures.

And in the middle, they’d draw a big fluffy cloud, to represent all those 1000 of other parts that were just too distracting.

So the mental map became : “My little box can access other computers anywhere, and I assume they are big boxes in sterile rooms”.

“The Internet is something that I put raw data into, and it has ways to store and reshuffle that information and give me back some useful information.”

The Cloud is the fourth and greatest shift so far.

Virtual machines were invented, which are basically software programs on a big computer, that act independently and like a little computer.

Turns out, you can run a lot of virtual machines (Windows, Macintosh, Unix, or any mixture) on a single physical computer.

Need another computer?

You can start up more machines as quickly and easily as you’d launch a new program on your laptop.

And close them down when you don’t need them.

So some people decided to wire a bunch of standard office-grade PCs together, and launch hundreds of identical virtual machines, and get them to all act as a huge server farm.

They figured out how to share hard drive storage between the machines, and how to share the processing power over their little network.

When they saw how well that worked, they just added a few thousand more PCs, then 10,000 more, then 100,000 more, then 1 million more, etc.

Amazon, Google, Microsoft all have dozens of data centres around the world with tens of thousands of little boxes, running maybe 30 virtual machines each.

Since the virtual machines are software, they can be copied, moved, shut down, re-assigned at will, in a matter of seconds.

If a physical machine burns out, the virtual machines re-assemble themselves, re-establish their virtual hard drives and data, and go on about their business.

If a data centre loses power, or network, is bombed, or flooded – then the others take over and rebuild the virtual machines elsewhere.

Now the mental map becomes : “My little box doesn’t need to be fast or smart or have a big hard drive. It’s just a window into big, smart, fast networks”.

“The Cloud is something that I put raw data into, and it has ways to store and reshuffle that information and give me back some useful information.”

The Cloud behaves like one big computer, just like all the generations before.

So, that’s what it is. One huge computer, made of a billion parts.

You don’t need to know about those parts, any more than you need to know about the billions of transistors in your desktop PC.

And your own little connection to the Cloud is probably your phone. Or a tablet.

The Cloud enables an exponential increase in what those little ubiquitous devices can do.

That’s what all the fuss is about.

Now what?

There’s absolutely no reason to think that this is the final shift.

  • There’s a Facebook Cloud.
  • There’s a Twitter Cloud.
  • There’s an Apple iCloud.
  • And hundreds of large corporations have built their own Clouds.
  • Microsoft has a Cloud.
  • Yahoo! Mail uses a cloud.

 

So the next logical shift is when the Clouds connect to each other, just as the old closed networks connected to become the Internet.

The Intercloud, and The Multicloud, are right now in their formative stages.

That’s when the entirety of the computing power on the planet is connected and it all works together.

Sci-fi stories over the past 100 years abound with mentions of : “The Cortex”, “Deep Thought”, “Telescreens”, “The Tank”, “The Matrix”, “Cyberspace”, “The Nets”, “Telelectroscope” : all  of which describe instant access to the totality of human knowledge.

Whatever we call it, the next generation “computer” will ignore geopolitical borders, be outside current tax and financial systems, and serve whoever can access it.

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