Plus ça change

I was thinking about revolutions today. I’ve taken part in, or witnessed, two of them:

  • The Digital Revolution (since 1940)
  • The Revolution against Revolutions (in effect, against political Ideology) – the end of the Socialist systems of Eastern Europe (1989)

Historians write about dozens of revolutions – the Agricultural Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and many others –  and we assume that revolutions are more or less identifiable events with known causes, and known outcomes. All of the ones I’ve listed happened more than a hundred years ago. The past is easier to describe. But what more recent events or periods will future historians identify as revolutionary? Will they write of the Digital Revolution, or the Revolution against Revolutions? Or the Ecological Revolution? Or the Human Rights Revolution?

I also started to think about the character of revolutions. For a start, people don’t really notice them when they’re happening. Even in retrospect it’s hard to say where and when they happened, or why. They’re made up of ideas (often a mix of quite incompatible ones), a few brave, fiery, madly motivated and foolhardy individuals, an accident or two, a skirmish here or there, and a lot of stuff happening quietly behind the scenes. It’s only later, and usually for reasons of propaganda, that events are identified as clustered, noticeable and critically significant –  events but for which there wouldn’t have been revolution, or so it seems later.

For example, I don’t think daily life was immediately affected by the October Revolution in 1917.  Our imagining of the Storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 – black and white figures streaming across a square –  is formed entirely by a staged and exaggerated recreation of the event three years later. It was probably no more than  a few vehicles drawing up at a kerb.

For most of the urban population it was probably a perfectly normal day in Petrograd, followed by many more normal days, and, yes, eventually the Gulags, but not suddenly. A revolution is not obviously an abrupt change of direction. And certainly it wasn’t a case of the unalterable forces of economics at play. The Bolsheviks won only because they (cynically) promised the army an immediate cessation of hostilities with Germany. It had nothing to do with the laws of economics and the triumph of the proletariat.

revolution

I remember drinking tea at the Café Europa in Wenceslas Square in Prague in March 1989 whilst demonstrators hurled insults at the Czechoslovak police outside and were roughly manhandled and pushed down the square. One could pop out of the café for a moment to see how it was getting on. In retrospect it was the beginning of a revolution that brought down the entire regime just six months later, but tea and cakes were just the same at the Café Europa that morning, and a few more streets away no one would have known anything was happening at all.

It is only in retrospect that revolutions appear to be a logical sequence of inevitable and influential events guided by the hand of history, ideology or a charismatic political leader. For most of those who are eventually and gradually affected by revolution, revolution itself is just another day at the office. And that’s something we forget. The most surprising feature of revolution is continuity. A few heads roll, and a few heads rise, but most of the faces stay the same. It was thus in Eastern Europe. Those who wielded mid-level power continued to do so after 1989. Those who knew how to make things work for themselves, even for others, went on doing so, to the bitter disappointment of the taxi-driving philosophers who thought their time had come.

Most people adapt to the ideology of the day. ‘Revolution’ – someone’s invention – happens above their heads. One day it’s this. Another day it’s that. The fact is that revolution is not an enemy of continuity.  It’s just an acceleration of change, a faster form of evolution. Anarchy is the danger. Which is why the worst thing you can ever do is to threaten the daily progress of the ordinary life of the compliant majority. Military victories and defeats are revolutions of a kind. When the Iraqi Army and the Baath party were foolishly disbanded in Iraq continuity was destroyed, and potential revolution became anarchy.

It’s hard, also, to put your finger on the Digital Revolution. I first became aware of computers when my brother wrote a Fortran program to generate discordant music in the 1970s (it never caught on as a method of composition), and I remember my father talking about computers being used for stock control even in the 1960s. There were big mainframes in the 1970s followed by PCs and networks from the mid-1980s. Most influentially, for most of us, the dotcom revolution of the late 1990s put information, reach and computing power into everyone’s hands. It’s been a sixty year revolution already and there’s no single identifiable event that stands out (might it have been Turing’s decrypting bombes of the Second World War, or his paper on the computability of numbers in the 1930s, or the machine that was used to model nuclear fission at Los Alamos in the early 1940s?).

Earth-shattering in retrospect, the Digital Revolution has been gradual and continuous. I was never more aware of this than when, already grey-haired by the time of the dot-com boom and bust in the very late 1990s, there was talk of the sweeping away of the ‘digital’ professions as we knew them, and which I lived from. The world, we were told, would belong to the young, to the upstarts who had broken the mould. True, it belonged to some of them, but continuity soon reasserted itself. Experience counted, in the end, as it counts today. Many of the dot-com generation hadn’t the first idea about how to manage a business or how to manage people. I remember rejecting (albeit with a little anxiety) an idea put forward by our crazy but enthusiastic Romanian general manager that we should rename our company (LLP Group) as Dot LLP Group. I would have been very embarrassed a year or two later. I don’t doubt that the Zuckerbergs, the Gates and the Jobs of this world are supported by armies of greyer-haired support staff who advise on finance, and management, and perhaps even IT.

Revolution overstates its case. There is no march of history that makes events inevitable.. History is just one small thing after another in billions of different places. It has no sense of direction, except towards the future and the total extinction of life. There’s only the contention of billions of very similar human beings seeking to satisfy the same basic needs for food, safety, freedom, comfort, meaning, knowledge, control, happiness and health for themselves and their families, needs that are best satisfied through cooperation. Thwart those basic needs and you risk the rise of intolerant religious and political ideology – anarchy, not revolution. Let us be glad that everything changes, and everything stays the same.

Clouds – Nimbus, 9, or Cuckoo?

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I am distrustful of bandwagons, and rarely board them as they rattle noisily by. It’s not that I’m against enthusiasm, or novelty, it’s just that bandwagons are often driven with irrational exuberance, and very often they crash. I prefer the slower vehicles that come along behind. They set out in the same direction, but with more care and circumspection, and they reach their destination more reliably.

bandwagon

I remember the bandwagon of the Dotcom boom – and the bust that followed it. Whilst there’s no doubt that the internet changed our lives, I’d rather call it accelerated evolution than revolution. Its victims were more often its most ardent supporters, hell bent on delightful ideas that lacked even a modicum of commercial good sense or realism, than the ancien regime.

The advent of the internet was evolution. It simply extended what we already had, and what we already did as business IT consultants. It didn’t, despite the fears of some, invalidate what we already knew. Business systems nestle as comfortably in the internet as they previously did in their more confined circumstances. The basic problems of system integration, of manufacturing, retail, services, accounting, distribution, CRM, and the rest, are of the same type as before, as complex as ever and we, who understand them, are as valuable as ever.

During the feverish years of the dotcom boom one of my colleagues told me that if we weren’t immediately reborn as ‘Dot LLP’  (instead of LLP Group) we’d be annihilated within six months. I laughed. We didn’t, and we’re still going strong. We learned some of the new dotcom tricks, and we go on learning.

thecloud

The Cloud, I fear, is currently another bandwagon. We won’t be boarding it with too much haste, even if its direction is the right one. We’ll be waiting for the slower train that won’t go off the rails.

The Cloud is an excellent idea. It comes in many forms. As those who tout it say, it allows businesses, even software authors such as we are (systems@work) to concentrate on what we do best. The business of managing IT infrastructure, handling communications, backups, performance, security, and so on, isn’t the business that most of us are in. It’s not our field of battle, so better to leave it to the experts. No need to employ specialists if others can do the job at a competitive price and relieve us of unproductive anxiety. We must concentrate on our core business activities.

All of that is true, and if we could all dump our systems onto rented hardware at reasonable cost, why not? Sometimes it’s possible and the right thing to do.

But that’s not exactly what the Cloud is meant to be. Certainly not all it’s meant to be. It’s not just a matter of hosting the particular collection of business software that we’ve amassed and integrated, it’s also about using a standard piece of software in a ‘multi-tenanted’ environment – one size, one copy suits all. And if we use this piece of software for accounting, this piece of software for distribution, and that piece of software for manufacturing, it may be about using multiple standard pieces of software in a number of different Clouds. It’s about business software becoming a commodity that can be accesses as easily as water through a tap.

Many business worry about the security of their data. But these issues of security are solvable, even if many companies are reluctant to let the ‘professionals’ look after their data. The fact is that data are vulnerable wherever they’re located, whether in-house or hosted, and the issues of security can be solved or not as easily in one environment as the other.

It is the issue of ‘standard software’ and ‘integration’ that don’t yet fit perfectly well within the Cloud. Sometimes, if the purpose of a piece of software is such that it can stand alone and if it’s used without alteration (even if configured for a particular company’s purposes) the Cloud can be a good place to put it, but if standard software has been modified, or extended, or is integrated in complex ways with other pieces of software, and other databases, then making this work with a Cloud-based solution will be difficult, and with a ‘pure’ multi-tenant Cloud based solution (one copy of the software serving everyone) it will be well-nigh impossible. Ensuring the consistency and coherence of systems and databases that are in multiple environments that you do not fully control will be difficult.

As time goes by, new techniques for integration may make this task easier, but we we’re not yet at that destination.

So, I am cautious about Cloud-based offerings in the world of business IT. They may work for some, but for many they aren’t yet the right solution. What seems initially like a good idea founders when a business needs something special from a standard software offering, or some special way of interfacing systems, and many businesses find themselves trapped by the choice they’ve made if it’s located in the Cloud. They’ve exchanged one limitation – the anxiety of running their own infrastructure – for another – the anxiety that comes from being limited by someone else’s standard software and infrastructure.

Whilst the provision and management of infrastructure isn’t usually the basis of a company’s competitive edge, the business software on it, often is.

As a software author (systems@work) we’re cautious. We offer configured systems in a hosted environment, and this suits customers who don’t need any software modifications and who don’t need interfaces between Cloud-based and non-Cloud systems, or who need only simple ones. And we offer on-premise installation and full-blown integrations when they’re needed.

But for now, the Cloud isn’t always the answer and we won’t be betting the business on it.