How technological revolutions can creep up on you unawares.
There’s an old canard about boiling frogs*. They say if you gradually increase the temperature, the frog won’t notice and will eventually boil to death with only the briefest consideration of “Goodness, it is getting hot in here!”
That frog story is total BS, but it does dramatically remind us of how change can creep up on us slowly and quietly and leave us unprepared for disaster, or ill-prepared to exploit the change of circumstances to our advantage. This article is about some changes you may (or may not) have noticed.
Let’s start with computing power. Moore’s Law states that approximately every two years, the price of computing power will halve. Or, to put it another way, the speed and power of computing will double every two years. One of the easiest ways to grasp the impacts of this law is to look back at how computing power looked in the past compared to now. If you have a smartphone, it is faster than the fastest and most powerful supercomputer of the 1970s, and cost a tiny, tiny fraction of the millions of dollars required for access back then.
This phenomenon of incredible power becoming accessible to the masses usually happens slowly so that we often don’t even realize how transformative it is. Being aware of these changes in accessibility to formerly unattainable technologies is the first step to being able to harness their potential.
Some of these kinds of changes creep up on you. Take video for example. In the past thirty years, the transition from film to digital photography has completely transformed how movies are made. But not just big blockbusters — even the home-movie world has been changed by this technology revolution. People now take far more photographs than in the film-camera days, often on their mobile phones. Mobile phones? Yes, those too used to be the exclusive purview of the ultra-rich or the TV Detective.
Helicopter photography shoots are still very expensive, but thanks to low cost and easy to use Drone technology, your vacation can now include aerial shots of your trip to the beach or pool-side cocktail party. A friend of mine is shooting a documentary and was able to get amazing footage of a Jeep excursion for a tiny fraction of what it would have cost to hire a copter-mounted rig. For comparison, a very low-end helicopter video rig rental is $300/hr. That’s without the skilled pilot and videographer. More common rates are around $600/hr and go up depending on the copter and pilot. A very nice drone with a 4K camera will run you between $500 and $1000 — but you own it and can use it over and over again.
I hate to keep harping on movie technology but it really has been one of the easiest examples to make my point. For example, the camera in a new iPhone or Android phone is capable of recording cinema grade 4K video. Many independent movies in the 1980s and 1990s were made by directors leveraging huge credit card debt to cover camera and film costs. Famously Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Haxan Film’s The Blair Witch Project were made on meager budgets (compared to Hollywood studio productions) but reaped huge rewards. People focus on the return ratio, but the initial outlay of cash was largely around camera and film. How much would it cost to shoot Clerks today?
You don’t even have to pay for prints of your movie anymore. It’s all digital. You don’t have to send it to the Theater distribution system to get it in front of people, because there are numerous streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc…) available for the hustling storyteller.
There has been a revolution in book publishing as well. Thanks to digital book technologies like ePub and Kindle, you can get your written creations out to huge audiences without the backing of a big publishing house. Print-on-Demand (POD) means you can also have your book never go out of print. I don’t want to overstate how effective this has been for authors, but there are more books available now than ever in history and that number is just growing. How many talented writers got thrown aside by the publishing industry’s tastes, nuances, and slavery to trends? There are still many barriers to success in publishing, but getting the book out to readers is no longer one of them.
These are just highly visible examples of revolutionary technical innovations. Behind the scenes, invisible to most, there are huge transformative technologies that have been unleashed and I wonder… are you taking advantage of them?
One of the strangest changes to me, as a former server administrator, is the shift from physical computers to Virtual Machines. Yes, behind the scenes there are still physical computers running everything but thanks to the flexibility that running on a VM offers, you can rebuild a server platform with increased CPU, Memory and Storage in just minutes. This is accomplished through abstracting the computing a layer up so that a VM management system creates multiple emulated servers on real hardware. These behave like a traditional rack server but offer quite a few advantages to just having a 1:1 relationship between OS and physical computers. A cluster of a few powerful servers might host many VMs, each siloed off into its own secure kingdom. The resources on these boxes can be kept in reserve and put into play as needed. This means you only need to pay for the more expensive larger system allocation when you’ve grown into it based on actual demand. For start-ups and enterprise alike, that is a huge change in how much it costs to grow your IT footprint, and how quickly it can be done. (Hint: It’s cheaper and it is faster.)
Sitting in the world of Virtual Machines, the Virtual Image lets you clone and replicate machines within a virtual environment. Amazon Machine Image (AMI) is a good example of this type of technology. A company can prepare a single image of what they want their servers to look like as a template, then duplicate it as needed. Each copy carries the same configuration rigor as the original. This empowers extremely fast server rollout times for the IT department that needs to run lean and fast yet keep security in mind.
Dynamically Sized Cloud Storage
Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Microsoft Cloud, it seems like everybody’s got a large scale storage solution built in the cloud. Originally these seemed to be about providing safe off-site storage with some sharing capability but expanded features now allow real-time collaboration, file-level access control, sharing with entities outside your corporation, and increasing levels of granular administrative control. There are always security risks to be considered, but when you offload your document sharing to cloud-based services, you’re definitely freeing up at least one full-time employee from having to manage all the admin overhead around managing those resources. On a personal note, I’ve been using Google Docs and collaboration features extensively for more than a decade and it has empowered me to work seamlessly with colleagues all over the world without having to email changes back and forth. And there is no concept of “running out of space” as long as you can afford your data storage bill. Do you need more space? Just order it, and suddenly you have more space! Compared to resizing storage volumes on a rack server, this is liberating for IT staff.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
There was a time when Artificial Intelligence (AI) was science fiction. Even today, people write about how AI is just around the corner. Those people need to ask Siri to help them find something else to write about. The meaning of AI in real life IT scenarios is quite different from the colloquial use. We don’t need machines to have Artificial Consciousness or to pass a Turing Test in order to be doing real AI. To paraphrase Ben Kenobi, AI surrounds us. If you’re reading this on a screen, then AI is affecting you. Decisions on what articles you will want to read, what videos you’ll want to watch, what weather prompts should be sent your way, what kind of music you will likely enjoy, when you should be prompted for reminders, how to get the best airline rates… there are so many hidden ways that already implemented AI empowers or affects your world. However, that’s just the part in the cultural foreground. Thanks to new tools that make AI available as a service, we’re going to see strange and unexpected decisions empowered by companies that purchase AI insights based on their own library of data. This is an intriguing and powerful technology that is still very much in its early days of wide availability and reliability. What can it do for you? Should you partner with an AI consultant company to find out?
There are also new tools for processing really large problems across multiple computers. Machine Learning tools like Google’s Tensor-Flow, Microsoft’s Azure platform, and Keras are making deep learning available in ways that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. Now they not only exist but are quite affordable. The real challenges in this field are how to apply them to your particular needs.
A little pedantry — Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have very specific industry meanings, and within both, there are a variety of specializations. Deep learning, neural networks, voice-recognition, face-recognition, language-translation… books have been written (and are still being written) about the field but we’re definitely in a stunning boom-town of ideas and products in this exciting landscape.
Low Code Software Platforms
A quiet revolution has been making it possible for non-Programmers to produce bespoke software solutions that they manage and grow themselves. For years businesses have struggled with the timeless question: “Do we try to get by with off-the-shelf software, or commit to developing our own solution?”
Enter Low Code platforms! These tools let your business experts develop their own software without having to use lengthy software development projects. When new requirements come up, the same people who use the tools are able to modify them to include new features. This is still an emerging technology but I suspect the reason we don’t hear much about it is that the tools built on these platforms quietly get business done. A really good solution is practically invisible.
Low Code platforms let you get most of your tasks done without writing code but they do retain the ability to inject custom programming as needed. This is different from No Code solutions, which are also quite powerful but may be limited when very specific technical challenges come up. Low Code has the best of both worlds — many solutions can be built without code, but the flexibility is there if you need it to connect to in-house proprietary systems or extend the features beyond what comes with the installation by default.
You didn’t think I forgot the beer, did you? As it happens, my boss (Dave) is a home brewer. I used to have a roommate who liked to brew beer and I occasionally helped out with some of the work around cleaning the glass carboys. I’m familiar, if not experienced, with the labor and chemistry that goes into a reliably good brew.
Dave has taken it to the next level.
He’s got the Blichman BrewEasy system added to his home brewing setup. This brings a recirculating infusing mash system (RIMS) into the hands of home users. This is the kind of equipment that commercial brewers use but was previously prohibitively expensive for the homebrew enthusiast. This system automates much of the labor and has precise temperature controls that provide a consistent product result. Dave has also switched from using glass carboys to a conical fermenter.
This kind of fermenter changes how the trub interacts with… you know what? If I’m not careful this will turn into a giant Beer 101 digression which I am unqualified to write. Let me just reiterate that Dave loves beer, and he loves process improvement and has applied the same principals to his hobbies as he has to his professional endeavors. He’s taken advantage of technological improvements and applied them to his passions.
Are you being boiled?
Let’s wrap this up. There are many technological advances that are changing the world, but it is easy to ignore them if you are getting by. Are you that frog? Are you going to ignore the incremental changes until one day you turn around and find that you’re cooked?
Sooner or later you need to change your circumstances or you will be boiled. That metaphorical frog will eventually jump out of that water — will you?
*No frogs were harmed in the making of this post.