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Keep it Simple? If Only

May 26, 2009

In a recent e-mail exchange, a friend and I were debating which was a better characteristic of a computer system, the capability to scale up or scale out? Would you rather have one machine that you can grow and virtualize, or a room full of many small machines? Which solution costs less and which is easier to administer? Is a cluster better than a beefy, powerful machine? Which philosophy is best for customers? The two of us hold different perspectives on these matters.

Somewhere during our discussion, he sent me a link to this article from The Register. I enjoyed reading it, and I'll be on the lookout for someone to implement the ideas it raises. In particular, this paragraph got me thinking:

"The other lesson to learn from the venerable AS/400--one that DEC and HP managers didn't get about their own minis and a lesson that Big Blue, to its chagrin, eventually forgot--is that an integrated system is not about itself. It's about the applications that run atop it. You make the system invisible, easy, beloved, reliable, and you get as many real-world, enterprise-class applications as possible on the machine and you help software houses make money by helping them push complete, turnkey systems to customers who are sick of thinking about computers."

The idea of a turnkey system for customers that don't want to think about a computer is exactly right. We're surrounded by technology, but we don't necessarily need to know how it works under the covers. How many of us have a DVR that runs Linux as the operating system? Do we care that Linux is running under the covers? We just want to record our favorite shows so we can watch them at our convenience. It's not like we want or need root access to our DVRs. (Of course, if you really want that, it's out there.)

What about smart phones, video game consoles, computer electronics in our cars, etc.? Sure, some folks want to hack their own hardware, but most of us just want the technology to work. My point is, you shouldn't have to know how to administer and secure your hardware. It should be secure and work out of the box.

I think people are drawn to simple products that simply work. You plug them in and there's no learning curve. You don't need to know that the operating system is running-- it just does what it's supposed to do, and does it well.

And what applies to individual consumers certainly applies to businesses. If your core business is manufacturing widgets, do you really want computer engineers on site taking care of your machines, or would you rather have a turnkey system that just sits in the corner and works? To have that turnkey system, someone has to write the code and make sure that it's working, and someone might be needed
to come on site for the initial setup and install, but after that, what's wrong with a machine that just runs?

While some of us enjoy the ins and outs of servers--new installs, performance monitoring, patching, keeping up on the latest trends in the industry, trying out new things--just as many people want to
be able to plug in a machine and have it work. They're tired of feeling dumb because they don't think to scan for viruses or avoid opening every attachment that comes their way. They want to spend their time thinking about their business instead of their business computer.

So where does that leave me? Still busy. The complexity seems to continue to grow in computer rooms, and plenty of people still need help understanding and setting up their servers. However, I have to wonder if it's too farfetched to think that, someday, server complexity will be such that customers can expect to get their machine, plug it in, and have it just work.

Posted May 26, 2009| Permalink