It used to be the case that only the very richest corporations on the planet could afford to buy and use a general-purpose computing system. Now it is possible for every person on Earth to find themselves a supercomputer via the Web. And many of us carry around a pretty powerful computer 24/7. Access to high-performance computing and “big data” processing is no longer a barrier for any enterprise of any size, from mom-and-pop shop to international terrorist. Just as the air we breathe is free at the point of use, the Earth has spawned a digital fabric available to all, for better or worse. The media refer to this infrastructure as “the cloud.” IT analysts talk about a “third platform.” CSC develops “next-generation IT” services. IBM is creating a “smarter planet.” Accenture calls it “digital.” Whatever it is, and whatever we call it, it is sometimes hard to get your head around the sheer enormity and complexity.
Recently, Shutterfly, a photo editing and sharing service, signed a 7-year contract for colocation and Internet connectivity services with Switch, the Internet company which operates the huge and growing SUPERNAP campus. Switch operates two huge data centers on its main Las Vegas site, spanning over 750,000 square feet. (A new planned build will double this.) Switch hosts over 1,000 corporate customer Web computing requirements, including 40 cloud providers. Shutterfly is one of those customers.
Shutterfly is a portfolio of digital lifestyle brands, Web-based services for all kinds of books, cards, event invitations, calendars and home décor ideas. It allows users to upload photographs and create their own customized products. To accommodate the growth of its business, Shutterfly has deployed 1,000 colocated cabinets at the Switch SUPERNAP to meet its escalating storage and compute requirements. Think about that: one thousand, eight feet tall, racks of equipment to meet the expansion needs of just one consumer Web site. Now extrapolate. Consider how many other Web services you use in your daily life. Now try to guesstimate how many Web services your friends and colleagues might be using at work and at home. Then add in all the other Web services that any Google search may reveal. And what about all the apps installed on your smartphone? Extrapolate those 1,000 cabinets dedicated to Shutterfly’s business, to the computing needs of everyone, and every company, in every country on the planet. Only then can we start to get a sense of the scale of what’s happening.
On the wall of my home office are two large framed posters of “The Whole Internet.” I bought these posters from a firm called PeaCockMaps 15 years ago in July 2000. The network topology data from which these images were developed was collected from Internet routing tables and traffic flow on May 3, 1999. The company no longer exists, but you can find historical images of these posters by searching Google Images. They show the diffusion and interconnectedness of the Internet at the time. I remember being very impressed by the scale of these images and I tried in vain to find my little spot on the Internet among the tens of thousands of connections shown.
The growth of IP technology, from its roots in the ARPANET as the ’60s faded and as we fast-forwarded to the roaring ’70s, has been truly startling. In 1980 there were only 20 operational ‘internetworks’ on the Internet. By 1986 there were 500,and by 1996 over 50,000. After this, unique visualizations such as those created by PeaCockMaps were required in order to get a sense of the scale of what was happening around us.
In 1997 I gave a conference keynote speech in which I predicted “The Internet as Global IT Department” – London, 4 February 1997. I still have the audio of this speech on … analogue cassette tape … that’s how long ago this was in Internet time.
Much of this Internet build-out was before the advent and impact of Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web experiments at CERN, the work which spawned the first graphical Web browsers and thus the first attractive corporate Web sites. Only then did the Venture Capitalists moved in, recognizing the potential of the Web for commercial gain, and funding startups such as Google, Amazon, and later Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.
How did we get here? Three distinct histories have collided, merged and amplified each other exponentially: the history of computing, the history of the Internet and the history of the Web. Their creative combinations now form a rich, myriad soup of computing services at every level of scale – from the tiniest, niche and discrete Web-based APIs, to vast chunky rented computing and systems upon which companies like Shutterfly now depend.
And the scale-out continues apace.
Advances in Internet, Web and Computing are far from over. Today’s fashionable tech trends and social media acronyms are little more than blips on a history chart – here today, gone tomorrow. Now we are connecting machines and devices to the cloud, and so the distinction between what is and is not a computer is fading. Software is now “everyware”. Tomorrow’s growth of our planet’s digital fabric will be every bit as impressive and impactful as the past. Our role here at CSC is to help our clients exploit its potential in their businesses.