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Scalability Perspectives is a series of posts that highlights the ideas that will shape the next decade of IT architecture. Each post is dedicated to a thought leader of the information age and his vision of the future. Be warned though – the journey into the minds and perspectives of these people requires an open mind.

Nicholas Carr

A former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Carr writes and speaks on technology, business, and culture. His provocative 2004 book Does IT Matter? set off a worldwide debate about the role of computers in business.

The Big Switch – Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google

Carr's core insight is that the development of the computer and the Internet remarkably parallels that of the last radically disruptive technology, electricity. He traces the rapid morphing of electrification from an in-house competitive advantage to a ubiquitous utility, and how the business advantage rapidly shifted from the innovators and early adopters to corporate titans who made their fortune from controlling a commodity essential to everyday life. He envisions similar future for the IT utility in his new book

... and likewise all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine. - Thomas Edison

Carr's vision is that IT services delivered over the Internet are replacing traditional software applications from our hard drives. We rely on the new utility grid to connect with friends at social networks, track business opportunities, manage photo collections or stock portfolios, watch videos and write blogs or business documents online.

All these services hint at the revolutionary potential of the new computing grid and the information utilities that run on it. In the years ahead, more and more of the information-processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big data centers located out on the Internet. The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed with the rise of electric utilities in the early years of the last century. The consequences for society - for the way we live, work, learn, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even think - promise to be equally profound. If the electric dynamo was the machine that fashioned twentieth century society - that made us who we are - the information dynamo is the machine that will fashion the new society of the twenty-first century.

The utilitarians as Carr calls them can deliver breakthrough IT economics through the use of highly efficient data centers and scalable, distributed computing, networking and storage architecture.

There's a new breed of Internet company on the loose. They grow like weeds, serve millions of customers a day and operate globally. And they have very, very few employees.

Look at YouTube, the video network. When it was bought by Google in 2006, for more than $1 billion, it was one of the most popular and fastest growing sites on the Net, broadcasting more than 100 million clips a day. Yet it employed a grand total of 60 people. Compare that to a traditional TV network like CBS, which has more than 23,000 employees.

Goodbye, Mr. Gates

So is the title for Chapter 4 of the book.

“The Next Sea change is upon us.” Those words appeared in an extraordinary memorandum that Bill Gates sent to Microsoft's top managers and engineers on October 30, 2005. “Services designed to scale to tens or hundreds of millions [of users] will dramatically change the nature and cost of solutions deliverable to enterprise or small businesses.” This new wave, he concluded, “will be very disruptive.”

IT in 2018: From Turing’s Machine to the Computing Cloud

Carr's new internet.com eBook concludes that thanks to the theory of Alan Turing's Universal Computing Machine and the rise of modern virtualization technologies:
  • With enough memory and enough speed, Turing’s work implies, a single computer could be programmed, with software code, to do all the work that is today done by all the other physical computers in the world.

  • Once you virtualize the computing infrastructure, you can run any application, including a custom-coded one, on an external computing grid.

  • In other words: Software (coding) can always be substituted for hardware (switching).

Into the Cloud

Carr demonstrates the power of the cloud through the example of the answering machine which have been vaporized into the cloud. This is happening to our e-mails, documents, photo albums, movies, friends and world (google earth?), too.

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably remember that the first telephone answering machine you used was a bulky, cumbersome device. It recorded voices as analog signals on spools of tape that required frequent rewinding and replacing. But it wasn’t long before you replaced that machine with a streamlined digital answering machine that recorded messages as strings of binary code, allowing all sorts of new features to be incorporated into the device through software programming. But the virtualization of telephone messaging didn’t end there. Once the device became digital, it didn’t have to be a device anymore – it could turn into a service running purely as code out in the telephone company’s network.
And so you threw out your answering machine and subscribed to a service. The physical device vaporized into the “cloud” of the network.

The Great Enterprise of the 21st Century

Carr considers building scalable web sites and services a great opportunity for this century.
Good news for highscalability.com :-)

Just as the last century’s electric utilities spurred the development of thousands of new consumer appliances and services, so the new computing utilities will shake up many markets and open myriad opportunities for innovation. Harnessing the power of the computing grid may be the great enterprise of the twenty-first century.

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