The other morning, a tech headline caught my eye: “50 YEARS LATER, WE’RE STILL LIVING IN THE XEROX ALTO’S WORLD“. It was notable to me for a couple of reasons.
First, I’m a big fan of Robert X. Cringely and his book “Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date”. In it, Cringely describes some of the seminal moments of computing – not just because they happened, but because those events continue to resonate through the decades and affect tech we own to this very day.
Prime among those events were things that happened at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or the “PARC project” as it’s come to be known. So much of what we still use today – from mice to fonts to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to networks had their start in that one location in the early 1970’s.
All of this got me thinking about something I wrote back in 2016, on how no technology is invented ex nihilo. Everything is based on something. Which in turn came from something else. And, to paraphrase the Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary solution.” A lot of so-called “ancient” tech is still around today – whether it’s running the creepy animatronic characters at your kid’s favorite pizza shop; or one of the biggest subway systems in the world.
“Oh Geez,” exclaimed the guy who sits 2 desks from me, “that thing is ancient! Why would they give him that?”
Taking the bait, I popped my head over the wall and asked “what is?”
He showed me a text message, sent to him from a buddy—an engineer (EE, actually) who worked for an oil company. My co-worker’s iPhone 6 displayed an image of a laptop we could only describe as “vintage”:
(A Toshiba Tecra 510CDT, which was cutting edge…back in 1997.)
“Wow.” I said. “Those were amazing. I worked on a ton of those. They were serious workhorses—you could practically drop one from a 4 story building and it would still work. I wanted one like nobody’s business, but I could never afford it.”
“OK, back in the day I’m sure they were great,” said my 20-something coworker dismissively. “But what the hell is he going to do with it NOW? Can it even run an OS anymore?”
I realized he was coming from a particular frame of reference that is common to all of us in I.T. Newer is better. Period. With few exceptions (COUGH-Windows M.E.-COUGH), the latest version of something—be it hardware or software—is always a step up from what came before.
While true, it leads to a frame of mind that is patently un-true: a belief that what is old is also irrelevant. Especially for I.T. Professionals, it’s a dangerous line of thought that almost always leads to un-necessary mistakes and avoidable failures.
In fact, ask any I.T. pro who’s been at it for a decade, and you’ll hear story after story:
- When programmers used COBOL, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, one of the fundamental techniques that were drilled into their heads was, “check your inputs.” Thinking about the latest version of exploits, be they an SSLv3 thing like ‘Poodle’, or a SQL injection, or any of a plethora of web based security problems, the fundamental flaw is the server NOT checking its inputs, for sanity.
- How about the OSI model? Yes, we all know its required knowledge for many certification exams (and at least one IT joke). But more importantly, it was (and still is) directly relevant to basic network troubleshooting.
- Nobody needs to know CORBA database structure anymore, right? Except that a major monitoring tool was originally developed on CORBA and that foundation has stuck. Which is why, if you try to create a folder-inside-a-folder more than 3 times, the entire system corrupts. CORBA (one of the original object-oriented databases) could only handle 3 levels of object containership.
- Powershell can be learned without understanding the Unix/Linux command line concepts. But, it’s sure EASIER to learn if you already know how to pipe ls into grep into awk so that you get a list of just the files you want, sorted by date. That technique (among other Unix/Linux concepts) was one of the original goals of Powershell.
- Older rev’s of industrial motion-control systems used specific pin-outs on the serial port. The new USB-to-Serial cables don’t mimic those pin-outs correctly, and trying to upload a program with the new cables will render the entire system useless.
And in fact, that’s why my co-worker’s buddy was handed one of those venerable Tecra laptops. It had a standard serial port and it was preloaded with the vendor’s DOS-based ladder-logic programming utility. Nobody expected it to run Windows 10, but it fulfilled a role that modern hardware simply couldn’t have done.
It’s an interesting story, but you have to ask: aside from some interesting anecdotes and a few bizarre use-cases, does this have any relevance to our work day-today?
We live in a world where servers, storage, and now the network is rushing toward a quantum singularity of virtualization.
And the “old-timers” in the mainframe team are laughing their butts off as they watch us run in circles, inventing new words to describe techniques they learned at the beginning of their career; making mistakes they solved decades ago; and (worst of all) dismissing everything they know as utterly irrelevant.
Think I’m exaggerating? SAN and NAS look suspiciously like DASD, just on faster hardware. Services like Azure and AWS, for all their glitz and automation, aren’t as far from rented time on a mainframe as we’d like to imagine. And when my company replaces my laptop with a fancy “appliance” that connects to Citrix VDI session, it reminds me of nothing as much as the VAX terminals I supported back in the day.
My point isn’t that I’m a techno-Ecclesiastes shouting “there is nothing new under the sun!” Or some I.T. hipster who was into the cloud before it was cool. My point is that it behooves us to remember that everything we do, and every technology we use, had its origins in something much older than 20 minutes ago.
If we take the time to understand that foundational technology we have the chance to avoid past mis-steps, leverage undocumented efficiencies built into the core of the tools, and build on ideas elegant enough to have withstood the test of time.