Are we headed back to the IBM 360?!

ibm-360Ahh, the good old days. It’s easy to reminisce. Back when CIO’s were known as DP managers and their word was law. Keepers of the key to the old centralized mainframe systems were gods. Their will was done by all. Want a report? Sorry – that’s got to be done by our centralized staff. What? You need access rights to some data? Sorry – our database manager will get to you soon. You need a new interface to some simple data written for your department? – Sorry – Our programmers are a little backed up right now.

Sound a little too familiar? With all the movement towards web-enabled technology and n-tier architecture and Java front ends, it makes me wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung completely back to a centralized mainframe type of approach to IT systems.

For those of you who don’t remember the pendulum swinging at all, it started like this: First came huge, unwieldy mainframe computers that were difficult to program and even more difficult to use but which could process an enormous amount of data from a huge number of sources terribly efficiently. If you wanted an application, you had to have it written and/or installed on the mainframe by the centralized IT staff. The application would have to be given rights to a database and then individual terminals could log into that application using a dumb terminal. If you wanted a change, such as a new sort on that report you get regularly, then you had to petition the IT Manager (then usually called the Data Processing Manager). Petitions were not always considered. Sometimes a ritual sacrifice was required or other offerings as might please the DP God.

Then came the PC. End users were ecstatic. For the first time, they had a system that allowed them to do their own analysis, their own reporting, their own management of the data within their control. Spreadsheet programs like Visicalc (and later Excel) and departmental database programs like dBase (and later Access) ruled. It is a testament to the changing times that about 9 years ago, it was estimated that more lines of dBase code were in existence worldwide than lines of Cobol code on mainframes. In 10 years, individual PC users had written as much code as had been written in the previous 20 years on mainframes.

Advances in networking computers together in the late 80’s helped individuals users bring departmental applications into being.

The advent of Windows of course started a drive towards the ultimate ease-of-use for end-users but paradoxically GUI programming was more difficult for developers. Additional levels of complexity such as client/server databases, object-oriented programming, internetworking across networks first internally and now through the internet has added to the minimally accepted developer skill level and now we find ourselves in a position not much different from 20 years ago.

Client/server databases are bringing data back to a more centralized point than it’s been since the great Diaspora of the early 80’s. The ERP movement of the last 5 years has driven data even closer together. ERP implementations have been complex enough to re-empower the IT manager in a way he or she has not enjoyed since they were 20 years younger.

The Web has sounded like a wonderful thing but are you starting to wonder how much personal control you’re left with if the only thing you need on your PC is a web-enabled browser?

The jury may be out on Application Service Providers who make all manner of application available as a centralized network application (Oh where is that Decwriter!) but if they catch on, the movement back to a centralized world may be complete.

There has been a movement of some vendors such as Oracle Sun to make “Network” PCs. They would need only a browser and a connection to the Internet. Indeed, my daughter’s Sega Dreamcast video game comes with a browser CD and the potential to run an entire business on my living room TV between bouts of Sonic and NFL 2K.

There are, of course, some key differences from the 70’s when all applications were centralized. First all, the end user experience is much different. Where once the language needed by end users to operate their systems was not recognizable by mortal man, today’s interfaces are designed to be understood by 5 year olds. They’re graphical, intuitive and even fun. Second, the whole notion of internetworking has changed the face of computing forever. Where once you could only access applications and data from the mainframe controlled by your own IT department, now data and applications can be made available from any network connected to the Internet. It serves to make your own structure much less oppressive. Finally, the 20 years of personal control that people have enjoyed from their PCs and their laptops are certainly not going to give way overnight. While there is a certain amount of restriction already in centralized Java type applications, user expectations of being able to customize and tailor these systems personally is driving them to be more open than any mainframe system of 20 years ago.

Given these expectations, it’s almost certain that we’re never going completely back to the types of applications and tyrannical environments that some of us are still trying to get over since we were just out of college.

Still, you might want to keep a small gift handy for your IT manager and the makings for a quick shrine should never be too far away. They may not be quite a god yet, but the chances that they become one are getting better every day.