2020: Tech Hindsight is 20/20

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A Technology Overview of What Was

The End of the year always brings a flurry of retrospective content. That’s natural I suppose. It is natural to get a bit reflective when the calendar markers click over. The compulsion to arm-chair quarterback major events and mistakes or to don a wizardly hat and Nostradamus the future is strong.

We were asked by CIO Magazine to make predictions for 2021 in the world of technology. When that content posts we will share it out with you. But to predict the future, you only have to look to the past. So, we decided to step out of the fog that was 2020 and look at the year with clear eyes.

The 4 Biggest Technology Stories of the Year 2020

#4. A Lesson & Warning in 3 Parts

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the behemoths of the tech world were Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. Among technologists there was persistent weeping and gnashing of teeth and threats from politicians and agencies of anti-trust actions and such. But twenty years later the picture is very different.

Microsoft, IBM, and Intel are now the Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre.

The Bad

In October of this year, IBM announced that it is splitting its business into two pieces and slashing 10,000 jobs — legacy managed infrastructure on one side and cloud on the other (the cloud side is mostly the former SoftLayer operation that they spent so much time and capital acquiring in 2013). But IBM has been steadily declining for a decade. The market caught up with them starting in 2012 — the SoftLayer acquisition was a grasp at a market that was fleeing under their feet. After the split, “Big Blue” will be “Baby Blue” and some other business that is yet un-named.

The Mediocre

Intel used to have a commanding market share in the manufacture of processor chip sets. As recently at 2016 there are estimates that they controlled ~83% of the global CPU market. This year, Nvidia acquired the UK’s premier chipmaker ARM, surpassed Intel in market cap, and became the #3 chipmaker in the world behind Samsung from Korea and TSMC in Taiwan. That means Intel is now #4. To add insult to injury, this year Apple announced that it would stop using Intel chips in its Mac computers starting in 2021.

The Good

Microsoft nearly met with a similar fate. But a series of difficult decisions and a strategic realignment — beginning with the hiring of Satya Nadella as CEO in 2014 — flipped the trajectory and Microsoft is once again on the top of the tech heap. An important part of that has been the swing from closed-garden thinking to open-platform thinking that has benefitted their Azure cloud infrastructure immensely. And with the release of .NET 5.0 they have begun the unification of their signature development framework with a mobile-web-first ethos for performance (it’s impressive). And then there is Microsoft’s alignment with SpaceX (see the next section).

The point is, as we sit here in the 202Xs worried about Amazon and the social media titans, it would be good for us to remember what the financial analysts say all the time in their disclaimers — “Past performance is not indicative of future results.” If we can manage to keep them from conspiring with each other and politicians, the problem will likely take care of itself … which is why they want to conspire.

#3. The Edge of Space & Beyond

The speed of light is fast, but it’s just not fast enough.

We like to think of the internet as a speed, always “here” kind of thing. But in the industry we talk about distance differently. For example, the distance from Seattle, Washington, to Auckland, New Zealand is just about 7000 miles exactly. It takes light 38 ms to travel that far. Not bad. But consider that it is not uncommon for a single webpage to have 100 or more external service calls to load. There are ways to optimize parallel processes, but keeping it simple, running all those as a single-threaded set of tasks requires a call and response — with some processing on both sides. The transit time alone would be 7.6 seconds (3.8x2). That’s WAY too long to load.

But it’s worse than that because the “internet distance” from Seattle to Auckland — the distance of cable required — is a lot further than 7000 miles. The signal goes for Seattle to San Francisco to Japan to The Philippines to Indonesia to Australia and then to New Zealand. I did a rough calculation and came up with about 14,500 miles of internet distance — more than twice the direct flight distance. Now how long would it take that web page to load?

This is why we all built Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). It allows us to store images and static resources closer to where the user is. This helps a LOT, but when we are talking about things like self-driving cars, emergency response, and medical information that require real-time performance of dynamic resources, CDNs can’t help you.

Actually 3 Stories in 1

Let me tie three separate stories from 2020 into one, because they belong together.

The Edge — the growing infrastructure trend of building smaller, powerful datacenter nodes in congested environments.

5G — It’s not a myth and it’s not going to kill you. 5G is a real deal advancement that makes transmitting data over radio waves much, much faster. We keep calling it “cell phones” but that misses the point.

SpaceX and StarLink — Elon Musk’s commercial space company and low-earth orbit satellite network.

All of these are being treated as separate stories by the tech press. In our view, that’s like calling tires and steering wheels different industries.

Progress on all three of these developments has raced on unabated in 2020. New Edge containers and portable datacenters have been developed and announced. All the big mobile providers spent literally billions of dollars bidding on 5G spectrum even though their hardware has not kept up. And SpaceX has launched hundreds more StarLink Satellites into orbit (BETA testing is going on now), and Microsoft has announced a partnership with StarLink to augment their Azure cloud with satellite connectivity.

This is all about bringing internet access to more people, more systems, and more services at faster speeds than ever before.

#2. Remote Work Zoom-Life … a Big Yawn

All of us in technology have been working, meeting, and collaborating via remote internet connections for years. Actually, it’s more than a decade now. Virtually as long as we’ve been in the business (pun intended).

Over that time, we have witnessed first-hand how more and more of our customers felt comfortable with video conferencing and online meetings. How more and more of them came to not only accept fewer site visits, but to have a genuine preference for their elimination in all but the most necessary of circumstances. We’ve seen how more and more of our associates, contacts, and customers embraced work-from-home days as a part of official company policy. We’ve watched how some of the best developers and tech professionals have eschewed big cities to enjoy the good life in smaller towns and remote locations without missing a beat, career-wise. And we watched as more and more players built hardware, software, and services to meet the remote work need.

The year of the pandemic did not create this demand. We have been in the middle of a long-tail macro-trend that has been building steam for a very long time. All the pandemic did was bring it to the lead story on cable news. At best, it will have allowed the trend to leap-frog three to five years of adoption.

The headline here is that this trend was not created by the pandemic. Rather, it was accelerated by it. So, the end of the pandemic will not reduce it. Decentralized work is here to stay.

Let us know if you need any help getting your business ready for it.

#1. Systemic Global Network Risk & Vulnerability

By far, the biggest technology news of the year is system and data security. Like the other stories in this list, it is actually a series of stories that are all inter-related in a single theme. We have been writing and posting about this extensively (follow us on LinkedIn or Facebook for regular updates). But here it is in a nutshell ….

From corporate boardrooms to the halls of government power, there is a real, battle waging. Fraudsters, tricksters, criminals, and government spies are deploying a persistent assault on computer systems all over the world. Many of these actually make the news — ransomware attacks on major infrastructure providers, security breaches at major domain and DNS companies, voter databases and tabulation machines, and breaches at enterprise organizations and governmental agencies.

No matter how you personally feel about the dangers of the virus pandemic, there can be little doubt that 2020 has been one of the most dangerous years in computer history. The SolarWinds compromise — though finally taken more seriously by the media — will likely go down as the largest security breach in history with repercussions stretching out for a decade or more. But this is not just a problem for “big” organizations. Far more small businesses, local governments, and even individual websites are exposed and have suffered losses — those smaller incidents just do not make the evening news.

We’ve created a lot of content over the years on system and data security (here is a recent article to help get started). Let us know if you have any questions. We’re always glad to help.