The third age of IT

We’re entering the third age of IT. The first age was the Mainframe Age. It had the advantage of being highly efficient, with computing assets operating at 90 percent or more of their capacity. But it had the disadvantage of being impersonal. Individuals couldn’t apply computing to their personal tasks when they had to go through a batch-processing regime. The second age – the age we’re still largely in – was the Client-Server Age. It had the advantage of making computing personal. We all got our own computers, along with easy access to the information and applications stored in our company’s data center. But it had the disadvantage of being incredibly inefficient (and inflexible). With thousands and thousands of subscale data centers scattered across the earth, capacity utilization plummeted – often to 25% or less.

The third age, now dawning, is the Utility Age. It offers the best of both worlds – personalization and efficiency. Today’s scattered IT infrastructure will be consolidated into highly efficient, utility-class data plants, while individuals will gain new flexibility to meld systems to their desires through simple configuration tools. For end users, IT will disappear. What they’ll get is the functionality they want. The same thing happened with mechanical power a century ago. Many thousands of scattered, subscale generators were consolidated into massive and massively efficient power plants, and the users got a flood of new applications.

Two good new articles examine some of the possible implications of IT’s third age: At Baseline, David Carr pulls together lots of facts from lots of places to give one of the better descriptions of Google’s utility infrastructure and the clever ways the company deploys applications on it. And, at O’Reilly Radar, Tim O’Reilly interviews Microsoft’s Debra Chrapaty, Vice President of Operations for Windows Live, about the deployment of applications on Microsoft’s emerging utility infrastructure – and uses her comments as a springboard for some more general musings about the future.

We’re in the early stage of the creation of the IT utility, so it’s interesting to see how a couple of the giants are approaching the task.

5 thoughts on “The third age of IT

  1. Ellen

    Nick, I found it interesting the way you laid out the three stages. Thanks for this refreshing new look at where we have been and are headed. What about the many we are leaving behind — how will they fit into the third era, in your opinion?

    Brain Based Business

  2. Filip Verhaeghe

    It follows that the fourth Age will include the commoditization of the data center, and will feature personal data centers (presumably in a completely different form factor).


    Estoy de acuerdo en que:

    1. Las consideraciones económicas favorecen el modelo de computación como un “utility”

    2. Las consideraciones económicas son muy importantes para los compradores – usuarios de gran volumen (la computación corporativa o del gobierno)

    3. Las consideraciones económicas son las que más pesan en el componente racional de las organizaciones

    Pero sospecho que:

    1. El componente racional no siempre es el único que gobierna las decisiones de compra de las organizaciones

    2. La era de las grandes organizaciones está siendo relevada por la era de la gran cantidad de organizaciones, de todos los tamaños (incluso la paradójica del individuo en solitario, pero extremamente conectado a otros “solitarios”)

    3. La computación es una cosa, el almacenamiento es otra… Y los individuos, aun cuando son racionales computando, lo son muchos menos almacenando…

  4. Morgan Goeller


    I think that we have heard the talk of these “internet utilities” once before, but it was in the mid-1990’s and about ISP’s. Fortunately, that didn’t really come to pass, at least not for any period of time. I think that what companies like AOL discovered was that when one has an unassailable monopoly, the only viable alternative is for everyone else to change the game.

    Also, there are some fundamental differences between information archicture and physical architecture. The biggest one is the cost of innovation.

    Until the cost and effort of building a new paradigm is so low that even the most frustrated young person won’t try to build something better in their garage then there won’t be anything like a “utility” that can be sustained for any period of time.

    Interesting ideas, however.


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