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Reimagining …  Reimagining …  Reimagining  …  

| June 20, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Almost every time I travel from Cambridge to Boston, I cross the Longfellow Bridge.  The central piers of the bridge feature four carved, ornamental stone towers, which give rise to another name for the bridge, the “Salt and Pepper Bridge,” which many of us still use.  Originally opening in 1906, the bridge replaced previous bridges and ferry services going back to 1630.  Since 2013 the bridge has been the subject of a $250 million restoration and rehabilitation effort which is expected to be completed in late 2018 or early 2019.  When the work is completed, we’ll have a very beautiful bridge with the same capacity it had before the project began.
That isn’t how the IT world works.  In the summer following my 1958 baccalaureate graduation, I was introduced to my first computer, an IBM 650 Magnetic Drum Data-Processing Machine.  It had a 2000 word memory (signed 10 digit numbers or 5 characters per word), and a clock speed of about 12.5 ms.  This machine occupied about 500 square feet of space, used punch cards for input and output, and required multiple operators for each of three shifts. 
Even though its computing capabilities were miniscule by any measure today, it permitted users to do complicated computations, often overnight, that would have taken days and even weeks to do by hand.  The project I worked on would not have been doable without it.
Today, the newest laptops have processors with about 3 billion transistors, clock speeds of over 3 Gb/s (about 300 million times faster than the 650), and up to 2 TB of memory.  Quite a change from the first computer I encountered.  So, while the Longfellow Bridge, after restoration, has basically the same functionality as it did when it was new over a century ago, changes in information technology have been disruptive and have had a significant impact on essentially everything that we do.  And, they continue increasing capabilities at an exponential rate. 
However, even in our computing world, we are having a difficult job of keeping up.  For example, many of our universities have multiple large data centers with computers running large, complex applications often maintained by large staffs.  Meanwhile their clients – students, faculty, and staff – are using smart handhelds and laptops with significant computing power wondering why they don’t have university applications more like the applications available on their handhelds. 
If you take a few large steps back, you can understand why we basically have, at least, two models of computing clamoring for attention and resources.  First there is the historic model of computing centers with central staffs to run large applications.  Within a two to three decades of my experience with the IBM 650, companies such as Digital were producing machines with significant (for that day) computing power that were the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet.  To the administrator or faculty member who was having trouble getting his or her work done via the central computing environment, this was an all too easy solution.  And, they latched on to it creating clusters of computing resources across the campus.  (And, I, too, did this in one of my pre-CIO roles.)
Then along came the handhelds and laptops which presented applications that were much more attractive and user friendly.  While, all this was going on, computing and storage devices became so inexpensive that some companies began building very, very large data centers and then offering what became known as cloud services.
This is the computing environment that we find on essentially every campus today.  And with it, we find many forces and trends at work to certainly evolve if not disrupt a campus’ IT environment.  Among these include pressure to reduce costs, to improve security, to put more resources into academic and instructional IT, and to make computing easier to use and more “friendly.”  These taken together clearly call for a rethinking, a real reimagining of how we do computing on our respective university campuses.
Today’s MOR’s 2017 Leaders Conference, Reimagining IT:  The Journey Continues, is our effort to continue this important discussion with those individuals who are participating in the conference.
Do take this opportunity to begin, continue, or restart your thinking about how you will reimagine your journey.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.