Technology Frontiers

The word frontier can be defined as “areas near or beyond a boundary”, and when we think of those who are “frontiersman”, we may think of ancient explorers, or the crew of the Enterprise on Star Trek who were exploring “space, the final frontier.”  These frontiers are new and exciting, but also fraught with risks and unknowns. We have gone through many frontiers in the information technology industry.  Looking back in my life we have had several: the move from mainframes to PCs, from character based operating systems to Windows and Mac graphical user interfaces, from local area network client/server applications to web based applications, and from PCs to tablets and other mobile devices. There are always new technologies and they drive change in how we operate and live and communicate.  Think of how the pony express system and telegraph allowed people to settle out west in the 1800s, far away from the civilization they knew in the eastern cities.  Similarly, today I write this at home while connected to my office and team via web, email, cell phone, and Skype for Business for chatting and sharing documents and screens. I am not 2,000 miles away, but I could be and it would be fine for what I need to do now.  This was not possible 20 years ago and yet it has become commonplace, and in it we see that I am using several of the technology frontiers of my lifetime.

And even now, we at Keystone are working with new technology that you may not even be aware of.  Why do we do this?  Inherently we love technology, so if you did not even need us to do it, we would still geek out at the latest mobile phone, backup software, security patch, and other fun to all or mundane to many technologies. We just can’t help ourselves, but we know that not everybody can stomach the pain of the new frontier.  They call it “cutting edge” for a reason, and sometimes it means “bleeding edge”.  We would not subject our clients to a new technology unless we have a good sense of the risks inherent, and how to overcome them to get the best value in the safest way possible.

Here are some technology frontiers we are exploring now in our Research and Development (R&D) that you may see as commonplace in your future.

3D Printing

So far, this feels like early paper printing technology.  Have you ever sent a job to a printer and nothing happens?  Or have you ever sent a 2 page document only to get 100 pages of what looks like alien communication?  That is what 3D printing feels like now.

3D Printing takes the concept of a data file, with instructions for how an object is shaped, and combines it with plastic extrusion technology to “print” the object.  You load the plastic filament into the 3D Printer, and send the job to it as a set of instructions.  The printer is supposed to print the object by feeding the filament through a hot end extrusion nozzle (the “print head”) and dropping it into a flat surface.  The print head moves up and down, and the flat surface (“the bed”) moves back and forth and eventually your object is sitting there; ready to use.

But it does not quite work that well.  Sometimes it runs for a while and stops, sometimes it slams into the bed and melts a hole, sometimes nothing, sometimes a big mess of plastic, etc.  But when it works it is great!

Think about some of the implications for your life.

  • You want to create a 3D representation of a new factory floor plan to test your kaizen or lean model more fully – just design it in the 3D software by dragging and sizing objects, and send to the printer. This reduces the time to prototype saving costs and improving flexibility.
  • Can’t find the battery cover to the remote control – just go online and download the design file and print a new one. No trip to the store, no tape over the batteries, etc.
  • Your client is not able to visualize what you are describing for your latest design for their building, and you are not going to make the sale because they lack a perspective needed to decide. Perhaps a 3D representation will help?
  • You need a new towel hook for the bathroom, but instead of buying online and waiting, you go browse designs, select and pay for one, and download and print.

At this point 3D printing has already been used to create new organs for your failing body parts, prototype new cars, create functional desk accessories, and help sell ideas.

It is new, it is exciting, and we are testing it now!

Clustered Computing

Most computing is one computer doing one or more jobs, and reliability and performance are based on what is in the machine’s box.  If you need more power, you open the machine and add more memory or disk space.  If the CPU is a few years old and not keeping up, you buy a new machine and rebuild everything. If you need reliability you buy one with at least 2 of everything you can: multiple drives, power supplies, and network cards. Performance and redundancy in this model are built on what is in the machine.

But if you could just add another machine and have it do ½ the work?  Or three more machines and they all share.  You now have 4 machines – 4x the performance, and if one goes down you run on 3 machines and replace the failed one as needed.  This is “clustered computing”.

It is not particularly new, and is sometimes called “Super Computing”, “Parallel Processing”, or “High Performance Computing”.  It was first conceived in the 1960s but required incredibly expensive hardware and custom software, and only accessible to organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for use in weather studies.  In the mid-1990s new technologies allowed computer clusters to be built from commodity servers (search for “Beowulf Cluster”).  Suddenly organizations could build their own.  So at the same time that the internet was becoming available to everybody, the power of clustered computers became available to build search engines like Google and Yahoo!  (for a quick view of Google’s first cluster that looks like a Lego system, see this: http://infolab.stanford.edu/pub/voy/museum/pictures/display/0-4-Google.htm).

These capabilities are now becoming available in two ways:

  • Build your own local super computer from off the shelf parts. We are doing this now, using about $200 in parts primarily based on the Raspberry Pi motherboards. By linking 4 of these credit card sized motherboards that each have 4 “cores” together in a clustered network and using special software, we have what looks like one computer to a software application. In testing, using one unit in the cluster, it takes about 35 seconds to calculate the value of Pi to 16 digits on one core of one Raspberry Pi, but when we go to 4 Raspberry Pi units (16 cores) we are seeing times of less than 9 seconds!Raspberry Pi Cluster 2 - part of a technology frontiers approach
  • Rent space on a cloud provider’s platform and use it while letting somebody else (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, etc.) do the dirty work of managing the platform and the networking. See this for a quick description of Google’s current platform for this (https://cloud.google.com/solutions/architecture/highperformancecomputing).

One caveat of this is the necessity that your software be developed to run in a multi-node, multi-core environment.  You can’t just grab a copy of Microsoft Excel and expect it to calculate your budget faster (although oddly enough Microsoft has extensions to support this (https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ff877825(v=ws.10).aspx)!  Your software has to be designed for multi-threading, multicore support (you may see things like “HPC”, “High Performance Computing”).  The leaders in this area now are big data database packages like Hadoop that have to process incredibly high volumes of data in a short time.

This technology may not be ready for the average small to medium sized business, but it shows what is possible and could help with growth and seasonal needs.

Latest Applications, Operating Systems, and Devices

This is the most basic technology we test – the thing you see next week, or next month, or next year.  We have multiple devices and many different operating systems and applications that are in beta form, and we are trying them out so we have a perspective on what you may see, when you should move to it, and what the risk and reward will be.

In fact, I just had a lock up when I was writing this article using Windows 10 in an advanced preview copy, and Microsoft Word 2016 latest version; it does not occur often, but does happen.  We are evaluating the features and capabilities, the user interface, and the reliability (in this case I lost a few minutes but no data).Windows 10 Blue Screen - The result of working in technology frontiers

Some of the tools we are testing now include:

  • The latest suite of Office 365 Products, including Skype for Business
  • SharePoint and OneDrive for Business
  • Apple MacBook 12” with a beta version of Apple OSX
  • Cloud Based Information Security Systems
  • Amazon Echo
  • Beta Versions of IOS (on iPhones and iPads)

Summary of Technology Frontiers

There are waves of technology shifts that represent new frontiers for users and business organizations, and each represents some questions: What is this?  How can it help me?  What are the risks? We are looking at these so you know we have an eye on what may make a difference for you!

Next time we will catch up some more, and include some other technology frontiers like Internet of Things (IoT) and Voice Recognition!

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