clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Downton Valley: Computing Enters the Third Era

Like old rock stars, computing eras never go away completely and are frequently brought back for gigs.


This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

Much of the teeth-gnashing in the IT industry today appears to be about competition, but it’s more about structural change as computing enters its third age. Like the passing of the Edwardian era in “Downton Abbey,” the client-server/Web era is giving way — kicking and screaming — to the rise of distributed systems. We see this everywhere, from the infrastructure models of Google, Facebook and Amazon to the applications and programming languages powering mobile, social and cloud.

Computing eras seem to peak every 30 years. Like old rock stars, they never go away completely and are frequently brought back for gigs.

Begun in the 1950s, the first empire was the mainframe era, and its first king, the IBM 360, came to the throne in the late ’60s/early ’70s. It could run a host of applications, and provided a range of tools for programmers and operators.

This gave way to the feudal era of client-server, which creates dozens and dozens of powerful tech companies across the stack. From its beginnings in Xerox PARC, a long list of new entrants emerged in the ’70s and ’80s. The birth of the World Wide Web in the ’90s — democratized by Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic browser and its commercial child, Netscape — took the client-server architecture further than anyone expected.

When new stars are formed, they originate in the collapse of enormous clouds of gases in space, called star nurseries. We are now swirling in the computing nursery of the distributed-systems era. This is a computing architecture that challenges the hierarchies or control points of the prior era. It’s more open, distributed, and virtual than client-server. This is a flatter software-centric world: APIs, programming languages and open source are magnitudes more efficient.

Moreover, this is the era of the sharing economy, where hardware and software (e.g., Salesforce, Workday) can be rented and consumed as needed versus owned. Enormous computing resources can be rented for a tiny faction of the cost of buying a range of hardware. Platforms are everywhere.

The IT industry needed a change. It has been growing at a low-single-decimal rate for the past decade (according to Gartner).Take out social, mobile and cloud, and the rest of IT feels like the old growth economy.

The apps and the infrastructure are going to change, albeit not overnight. The flexibility and speed of creating new apps — i.e., supporting new businesses or business processes — is going to drive the inevitable shift. For some new players this is the new gold rush. Lots of new entrants (including my own company) are hustling to become the Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo Studebakers (wagon makers) and Pinkertons of this era. Companies like Amazon Web Services and Rackspace are offering to give you an entire frontier town in which to set up shop.

For the distributed-systems computing era to take off, it will need the same kinds of capabilities found in the prior wave. Innovation can only succeed if you can reduce or eliminate the tradeoffs in:

  • Speed
  • Reliability
  • Performance
  • Privacy
  • Security

Want to figure out the next generation of winners and losers? Figure out who will solve these five issues.

Many of the client-server-era companies are not going to make the transition in their current forms. It’s like Michael Jordan playing baseball. Sure, he could get into a uniform, hit a few balls, and catch a pop-up, but it was not his natural sport. IBM made the transition from mainframe to client-server by transforming itself into a services-and-software company.

If you are in IT at the dawn of this third era, you don’t want to seem like the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey,” who, upon seeing the telephone for the first time, asked: “Is this an instrument of communication or torture?”

Alan Cohen is the chief commercial officer of Illumio. His last two startups, Airespace and Nicira, were acquired, respectively, by Cisco and VMware. He also serves as an adviser and board member to several technology companies. Reach him @ascohen.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.