“All our best men are laughed
at in this nightmare land.”
– Jack Kerouac, 1950
There are more than enough nightmares to go around in this world, but Beat Generation author and poet Jack Kerouac could never have envisioned the nightmare threat of instantaneous data loss that faces modern business. “It’s not a matter of what you’ll do if your file server dies,” says one long-time industry professional, “it’s a matter of what you’ll do when it dies.” Many corporations, large and small, have decided the best solution is to move their data off-site to a computer data center, or server farm. This solution simply was not possible before the advent of low-cost broadband and Internet service. It has also opened doors to new business management protocols that break the chain of endless software purchases and upgrades.
How did we get here?
Let’s retrace history. It’s a long slog from Blaise Pascal’s mechanical calculator (1642) to today’s fastest computer, the IBM Sequoia at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. In between came mechanical calculators, electronic calculators, personal computers, local area networks, file servers and remote data centers. According to the Computer History Museum, commercial electronic computers first came into use in the early 1950’s when UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) introduced the UNIVAC 1 to handle data compiling tasks for the Census Bureau. Between 1951 and 1957 UNIVAC sold 46 of the million-dollar systems. IBM entered the market in 1952 with its vacuum tube powered 700 series and grew to a dominant position in all things computer related, large and small. From the outset, IBM was a long-term player. Their proven marketing prowess, wide distribution network (typewriters and other office equipment), plus their significant engineering/design skills, moved the blue eight-bar logo to the top of the computer heap. Their mini-computers, the Systems 34 and 36, took computing out of the large air-conditioned rooms and enabled much smaller enterprises to have their own data processing.
All through this development, up until the early 1980s, it was a fact of life that computing was handled at a central site. Faster, more capable and more reliable computers came along and off-the-shelf software augmented in-house programming, but the entire process was designed and managed by Information Technology (IT) professionals. That began to change in the late 1970s when integrated circuits, developed for calculators and microwave ovens, were pressed into service as central processing units for keyboard-controlled personal computers. Commodore, Apple, Atari, Tandy and others made personal computers (PCs) from these unintended components. Off-the-shelf software enabled these small desktop units to do jobs that were too small and unworthy of the attention of corporate programmers and systems managers. Retail outlets like Radio Shack, ComputerLand and Entrè sold the new computers at tens of thousands of stores and brand names, such as IBM, Compaq, DEC and Oswald came to be household words.
The convenience and power that PCs gave the individual user, quickly reached the point where it simply overwhelmed many companies, including IBM. In 1983, having woefully underestimated their internal need for PCs, IBM’s Printer Divison bought hundreds of the firm’s own PCs on the open market. All over the world, managers of all types of enterprises were creating five-year business plans with WordStar and VisiCalc that IT departments couldn’t even imagine. Data protection quickly became a problem when cassette tapes and 180 Kb floppy disc drives proved pathetically vulnerable; then it became a management issue just before it became just plain impossible. Tape backup systems were next to useless in the real world. How many managers actually remembered to run the tape backup and take it off-site every night? Mirrored hard drives were great, but if there was a fire in the server room they might as well just blow the place up for all the good they would do. The world needed the Internet.
(article continues on page 2 and more photographs are at the end)