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Computing, then and now: A 30-year view

I started covering the IT industry in January 1986. Quite a few things have changed since the 33 MHz i386 chip was a major development, but a number of today’s technology approaches and lines of business have a familiar ring.

Consider the following:

Clustering

Thirty years ago, VAX clustering — courtesy of Digital Equipment Corp., or DEC — established the notion of linking many machines together to get work done in parallel as a mainstream computing concept. Today, clusters of machines running Linux (a Unix clone) are prevalent in high performance computing, Hadoop deployments and other applications. There’s a certain irony there, since DEC’s chairman, Ken Olsen, was perhaps not the biggest Unix advocate. That said, DEC did release its own take on Unix, Ultrix, in the mid-1980s.

IT as a utility

In the mid-1980s, time-sharing entities such as Infonet and McDonnell Douglas Tymshare were still around. Such providers originated in the 1960s, offering businesses the ability to access off-site compute resources housed at a time-sharing service bureau. Not every company wanted to build its own glass house and maintain its own mainframes from IBM or the “BUNCH” companies: Burroughs, Univac (Sperry), NCR, Control Data Corp. and Honeywell. Time-sharing, however, eventually dwindled as more businesses decided they wanted to maintain their own IT gear (which had expanded to include departmental systems, microcomputers and, eventually, PCs) after all.

But the pendulum has since swung the other way. Today, many companies, from small businesses to large enterprises, have decided that server-hugging isn’t the way to go. That thinking has helped fuel the current cloud computing movement, which lets businesses obtain computing resources, storage capacity and software applications without investing in on-premises equipment. Cloud services providers now take the place of service bureaus, but their approaches aren’t radically different. It’s just that the newcomers rely on the Internet and multi-tenancy, while the earlier wave of utility computing providers involved dedicated leased lines or dial-up connections.

The channel

Value-added resellers (VARs) were around in 1986, and systems integration was just emerging as the latest-and-greatest business model. Companies in the VAR and systems integrator camps continue to operate today under the broader banner of IT services — along with more recent entries such as managed service providers and cloud consultancies. The latter group, as previously noted, harken back to the era of upstart client-server integrators.

Another mid-1980s channel development: The management advisory services practices of the Big Eight accounting firms focused on the transition to systems integration and IT strategy consulting. Those companies — Arthur Young, Arthur Andersen, Coopers & Lybrand, Deloitte Haskins & Sells, Ernst & Whinney, Peat Marwick Mitchell, Price Waterhouse and Touche Ross — have since been consolidated and repackaged via mergers and acquisitions. But while Big Eight firms are extinct, their corporate descendants are very much alive: Accenture (Arthur Andersen via Andersen Consulting); PwC (Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand); IBM (not exactly a Big Eight descendant, but the company did acquire the consulting unit of PwC); Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu; BearingPoint (originated from KPMG, which previously incorporated Peat Marwick); and EY (Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young = Ernst & Young Global Ltd.).

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And there you have it: Three historical connections that help us understand the present, while shedding some light on what the future may bring.

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