History of the Data Center …continued

Mainframe to Mini

Once upon a time the ONLY computing power that was available was the “mainframe’ – a big complex proprietary piece of machinery that required millions of dollars and a whole set of attendants that loved and cared for it. Anybody who remembers the power of the “operator” and the “systems programmer” will know exactly what I am talking about. In fact if a lot of old school IT guys were still in charge mainframes would still be the only computing resource available. I’ll come back to this in a little while. Then as organizational structures evolved into the “business unit” with P&L responsibility, the central computing resource also came under pressure from departmental systems such as the DEC VAX systems. This threatened the mainframe, even though in many cases the mainframe had superior application performance and support, the independence of these systems was attractive to those who ran the actual P&L. It was “their departments” system

The PC

Then came the real evolution – the PC. First entering the corporate world through specific functions such as finance, the PC took the corporate world by storm. And for the longest time it was opposed by the old world dinosaur mainframe loving IT management. Having fought for recognition as a legitimate business function, IT was now under threat. However then came the network. Insteadof using the dreaded floppy disk and sneaker-net, people using these PCs wanted access to the corporate information and resources, to share files and especially printers. Networking became the new preserve of the IT organization along with its traditional preserve in the mainframe center.


Networking went through many iterations, cabling systems and topology types.   For the connection into the computing resources of the organization there was a rabid competition between ethernet and token ring.  eventually Synoptics developed a version of the an ethernet card and hub that ran across structured cabling originally developed for phone distribution.   At that point, and for many other reasons, Ethernet won.  Then came 100BaseT and eventually 1000BaseT and that was now the only way to connect locally.


I remember a day when IP wasn’t actually the standard – maybe that makes me old but anyone out there remember GOSIP – the OSI stack, X400 for mail, X500 for directory services?  The UK and the US government mandated (well sort of ) OSI – and my god it was hard to do…….so everyone just implemented IP anyway.  In a way it was a victory for the developers rather than the “standards bodies” and government mandated and designed standards.  Beware IPv6!!

The Internet and then the “www”

So much has been written about the Internet and the worldwide web (which are not the same thing) that it would be even more presumptuous of me to write about it.  It has so deeply revolutionized the world we live in that it is now compared with the electricity distribution network.  What it has done is put the role of the datacenter back in a way that the corporate dinosaur mainframe brigade would have been completely staggered.  If so many people can access information and services via the Internet then it has to “live” somewhere.   Cloud computing is actually a very natural development of this as the cost of maintaining the every rising expectation of the business users pushes the traditional IT organization well past their capacity to spend/invest.

Storage and server interconnect

This topic could take weeks to explain and that is not my intention.  Needless to say unbeknownst to most people on the planet, the world of the mainframe continued to develop.   It developed specific technologies to deal with such issues as high speed storage access – going through years and years of development of FiberChannel.  There were various stumbles and misunderstandings along the way – mainly because silicon valey-ites trying to live up to the term “disruptive” insisted on taking technologies and positioning them as competitive to mess someone else up rather than really understanding what the technology was for.  SCSI over IP or iSCSI was a classic case, as was Infiniband.  However that was all a sideshow to the main event.  CEE (Converged Enhanced Ethernet)  is this a fabric enabler or what?


One of my favorite CIOs said that other day that all engineers or techs love to talk about how they did whatever the new thing is 10 years ago.  Virtualization has been around since mainframes got big.   The concept of virtual machines running processes as if they were individual machines has been around since, well, before even me.  VM from IBM and VME from ICL were two highly advanced virtual machine environments – unfortunately what they ran on was proprietary, unbelievably expensive and required more power than a small city per box.   But now its different.  What VMWare and the other virtualization solutions have done is turned the reasons, justification and effect of virtualization on its head.  Now we have something that allows us to use standardized architectures to run hundreds if not thousands of processes without the need to buy that many servers to run them.   It enables processes to be managed, prioritized, run in a way that gives flexibility to meet deadlines and SLAs, offer greater range of services and also reduce costs in capital investment and such variables as power consumption.


This is another topic thats stunning in its breadth.   Graphical network management started to become available in the very early 90s but server and storage management had already reached a different plain of management sophistication……..and has continue to be developed since then!  Management systems, combined with search technology alone revolutionizes the control and management of data….and so on and so on.

So What?

Nice history lesson.  Well kinda apart from all the bits we left out which is most of it!!

Saying that it was inevitable is a bit like saying that mankind was an inevitable result of evolution – it just depends on what you believe but what it does mean is pretty interesting.  With everyone spun up about Cloud Computing, Google openly talking about the biggest and best of examples of this genre and the whole “green” thing,  the data center has regained a place at the top of the “visibility” heap.  But the outcome of these type of visibility blips never matches what we thought at the beginning.    That’s why analysts are still in business – because they always get it wrong.  IMHO this could swing the pendulum back in a completely different direction.  Actually it could become the wrecking ball of a lot of pre-conceived ideas – just like the humble PC destroyed the data center of the past.

The Opportunity

Now we have a data center play from Cisco, consolidation of the existing players and the evangelists and marketing wheenies going nuts about cloud computing, and starting to spin off all kinds of stuff – private clouds etc etc etc.   We also have the interesting spectre of a far more integrated approach to the data center.  It’s simple math.  We push the data center into the cloud and consolidate.  But by leveraging the technology and consolidating we enable the data center to move downstream.   Why couldn’t even the meanest mid sized enterprise have their own data center – not in the basement but in the closet.   Well lets not count our chickens until we have the pricing model……but there are 100,000 channel partners out there that would LOVE to sell that concept or to offer that service whatever that service may be!

If you got this far, thanks for reading!  Let me know if you agree, disagree or have something to add!

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