Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why Star Trek can teach us a thing or two about internal cloud computing

In honor of the opening of the new Star Trek (sort-of reboot) movie, the slightly whimsical blog topic for today is a bizarre little connection I noticed between what our Cassatt Data Center Dialog blog normally talks about and how the Starship Enterprise manages to "boldly go." Yes, even if you don't know a tribble from a warp core breach, I'm saying there just might be something to be learned about internal cloud computing from Star Trek.

And if not, at least this post is a good excuse to use the word fizzbin in a sentence in a work setting.

I realize that I am reaching a bit here, but I figured if Star Trek can continue to be a cultural phenomenon after 40 years, it's worth thinking about why. It certainly is right up there with Star Wars and Dilbert as one of IT folks' all-time favorite entertainment (and quote) sources. And since even Wil Wheaton (aka @wilw on Twitter and wunderkind Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation) has given the new movie a big thumbs up, I'm feeling like we're poised for a full-fledged Trekfest for the next few weeks. I might as well join in.

Actually, technology copies Star Trek

Newsweek used their May 4 cover story to ask what continues to make Star Trek so compelling. Sure, green-skinned Orion slave girls have their appeal to a certain audience. But, the Trek ratio of technobabble to green aliens heavily favors the gibberish. One of the Newsweek articles was by former Star Trek: The Next Generation writer Leonard Mlodinow who, after a trial by fire on the show's writing staff, figured out that the point of the show was not to see how you could "put real science in the science fiction," as he was attempting.

Instead, Star Trek lets you imagine something new that exists in the future, as a target for us to strive for. "I had had it backward," wrote Mlodinow. "The fun in Star Trek didn't come from copying science but from having science copy it." Captain James T. Kirk would certainly have recognized all those Motorola RAZRs had one of his slingshots around the sun landed him in 2006, for example.

Which brings me to cloud computing.
The Enterprise's internal cloud: now that's a real-time infrastructure
It seems to me that the minds that came up with -- and got us comfortable with how to use -- the phaser, universal translator, replicator, holodeck, and transporter, also came up with on-premise cloud computing.

Here's why I say that: in the 79 episodes of the original '60s series, and even in the Next Generation version from the '90s, a very seamless computing infrastructure ran the Enterprise. Their futuristic, on-board data center (in addition to inspiring Google, it seems) provided Kirk or Picard's crews with endless, on-demand data; instantaneous holographic simulations despite a few missing variables; and even complex calculations sufficient to bring whales, some very odd wardrobe choices, and at least one hideous toupee 300 years into the future in a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey.

Any real-world IT person would notice that the computing infrastructure and underlying architecture that enabled all this wasn't really mentioned that much. It was asked to do a whole lot (including speech recognition of nervous Scottish engineers), without ever interrupting the flow of any given episode with lame interludes where we had to watch the red-shirted Enterprise IT staff (you had to know that pun was coming) provision servers to each new task that Spock or Data threw at the system.

Of course, most IT folks have been tuning out the representations of "realistic" computing in TV and movies since Matthew Broderick used his home modem to kick off a quick game of "global thermonuclear war' in the '80s. So, I forgive you if you didn't spend much time thinking about this. But I digress.
Sure, there were a few Star Trek computer security problems that occasionally locked the crew on course for the Andromeda galaxy or kept them out of their own bridge, but they rarely had what you or I would call IT operations issues. I recall a few minor run-ins with Iconian probes and sentient nanites, but there really was no drama about the ship's computing infrastructure.

And that's exactly how it should be. This is what we're all working toward. Everyone gets the computing power they need, when they need it. (Which is usually right as the Borg are bearing down on them, blabbering on about resistance being futile and all.) The crew had computer resources allocated to whatever priorities they requested without people manually messing with the IT operations. Reads just like one of our Cassatt white papers. Or an explanation of Gartner's real-time infrastructure concept. Hmmm.

Now, I always had the impression that the Enterprise was actually a giant flying mainframe, which may be the case, but the idea of internal cloud computing has its roots there anyway. You have policy-based automation carving up and allocating available resources based upon priorities ("We're venting plasma down here!") and service levels you set ("I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!").

Now that's an IT future filled with Roddenberryesque hope and optimism. And one that may sound far-fetched, but as data centers continue their path toward greater and greater complexity, we need computers to do what they are good at and help us mere mortals manage things. We need automation and policy management to take things beyond what we can handle in our own brains (or even Spock's brain) and take things where no one has gone before.
OK, so even if you aren't buying any of this so far, here's another thing to think about. Is there another technology more in need of a futuristic proof point, more in need of a little validation? Fast-forwarding to the 23rd century to see how this cloud computing stuff all works out -- and gets used -- is great fun for two reasons.

One, with the Enterprise, we get to see an organization whose "business" is seamlessly supported by their "IT" -- a situation that most 21st century folks would indeed qualify as science fiction. But it's something to aim for.

And, two, we get to fast-forward through all the cloud computing hype to the point in time where it's just about making stuff work. We can skip both the market noise and the chaotic mess that's sometimes supporting today's applications -- and get on with the living long and prospering.
Anyway, enjoy the movie. I expect a flurry of 120-minute "team lunches" at cineplexes just down the road from IT departments around the planet. I'll be the guy in the costume.

P.S. Just in case you think I’m a little too immersed in this ‘Star Trek’ thing, be thankful that at least I'm not doing Klingon opera like these guys (thanks, @digiphile).
(Update: There was a fun front-page San Francisco Chronicle article over the weekend by Benny Evangelista that recounted a number of the technologies that 'Star Trek' has inspired over the years, some successfully, some not so much. Two of note: a sort of medical tricorder that doesn't require needles to learn things about your blood and a universal translator-type device in use in Iraq since 2003. I'm still waiting for the transporter, myself.)

1 comment:

David H Deans said...

Jay, I have to wonder just how many enterprise CIOs are thinking out beyond a year or two -- attempting to imagine how cloud-based services might deliver the positive business impact that their CEOs demand.

In contrast, most market research describes the typical IT leadership team still consumed by the day-to-day drudgery. The current economic environment has likely fueled that short-term mindset.

Perhaps the IT executive focus needs to evolve beyond merely "making stuff work," and instead try to imagine how it becomes the foundation for a forward-looking new business model.

Granted, it's easier said than done. However, it would seem that creative imagination has been the missing ingredient that might have changed the outcome of many a failed IT project.

David Deans
Business Technology Roundtable