by August 1, 2009 0 comments

Remember the old mainframes? Big, powerful machines that everybody used to
work on via ‘dumb’ terminals? All processing capabilities, applications, etc
would reside in these big irons, making them the most powerful machines around,
with multiple processors, high-speed throughput capabilities, etc.

Then came the client/server era, wherein all compute power moved out to
desktops and servers. This started a cat and mouse chase between the hardware
that powered these machines and applications that were developed for them. Every
time a new and powerful hardware was released, application developers quickly
created something to consume all of its power.

On the server front, new apps emerged for different tasks, each one demanding
a separate hardware box for itself. Data grew so much that servers could no
longer contain it. This started the storage era and NAS and SAN became the order
of the day.

So, there were applications running on multiple servers, each one with its
own ‘island’ of data stored on separate storage devices. This led to another
problem-that of getting these applications to talk to one another. Plus, there
was redundant data sitting across different applications, making the IT
infrastructure extremely complex to handle. One solution to this was middleware,
or software that allowed intra-application communication possible. Multiple
standards emerged to make this happen, bringing along with it standards like
XML, SOAP, web services, and SOA.
Even after this, the problem of server proliferation remained. This was resolved
with the emergence of another powerful technology -virtualization. So, instead
of having lots of pedestal and rack servers, virtualization can help pack all of
them into fewer, ‘more’ powerful servers. The same technology is also available
for storage.

At the desktop level as well, application management gradually became very
difficult thanks to multiple versions of Operating Systems and applications
running on it. There were separate clients to access different business
applications, apart from umpteen desktop productivity apps like Office suites,
email clients, etc.

The web provided the answer to this problem, by providing a common
‘web-browser’ interface to most applications, thereby ending the era of ‘thick’
client applications residing on desktops. They all run on servers, and are
accessed over the web.

This brings us to an interesting situation. We’re seeing big, powerful
servers running in huge data centers at the back-end to serve all applications,
just like the mainframe days; and we’re seeing simple web browsers at the
front-end to access them, just like the terminals that used to access
mainframes. Of course, things are very different now, with technologies like
cloud computing managing hardware resources at the back-end, and new devices
like smartphones and laptops emerging at the front-end, making it possible to
stay connected no matter where you are.
It’s interesting to see how IT has come back a full circle, and yet is so

Anil Chopra, Editor

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