2020 brings the death of IT

IT -- Information Technology -- grew out of something we called MIS -- Management Information Systems -- but both meant a kid in a white shirt who brought you a new keyboard when yours broke. Well, the kid is now gone, sent home with everyone else, and that kid isn’t coming back… ever. IT is near death, fading by the day. But don’t blame COVID-19 because the death of IT was inevitable. This novel coronavirus just made it happen a little quicker.

I mentioned the switch from MIS to IT because that name change presaged the events I am describing here. Management Information Systems was an artifact of big business, where corporate life was managed rather than lived. Information Technology happened when MIS escaped into the wild. MIS meant office buildings and Local Area Networks while IT includes home workers in their pajamas which, frankly, describes me at this precise moment.

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To quote the immortal Al Mandel (why am I the only one who ever quotes the immortal Al?) "the step after ubiquity is invisibility." IT was the last visible vestige of MIS and now it, too, is gone.

But wait, who will replace my keyboard?

Amazon has been replacing all of our keyboards for some time now, along with our mice and our failed cables, and even entire PCs.

IT has been changing steadily from kids taking elevators up from the sub-basement to Amazon Prime trucks rolling-up to your mailbox.

At the same time, our network providers have been working to limit their truck rolls entirely. Stop by the Comcast storefront to get your cable modem, because nobody is going to come to install it if you aren’t the first person living there to have cable.

Two technical trends are at work here, one having to do with hardware and the other having to do with networking. Both are driven mainly by economics.

Networking is in the lead here, because the hardware transition can’t happen unless the network enables it. The network transition I’m talking about is MPLS to SD-WAN to SASE. I’ll now explain what these acronyms mean, but if you only care about investing the punchline to this whole column is INVEST IN SASE, which right now primarily means Cato Networks and Fortinet and probably a bunch of startups.

In the beginning, there was Bob Metcalfe and Ethernet and God saw that both were good, but Ethernet was a protocol for Local Area Networks (LANs) that didn’t work nearly as well when business was extended beyond the building. In those days pulling the boss’s home office into the LAN required a fractional T-1 line that cost maybe $600 per month -- too much for anyone but Mr. Bigshot.

Then came Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), a protocol for efficient network traffic flow between two or more locations. The idea behind MPLS was to encapsulate data packets so they could be extended beyond the LAN over almost any network technology, even home DSL links from the phone company.

MPLS required a new, more expensive router, so of course, Cisco and Juniper loved it. And MPLS worked a treat, but its bandwidth costs were high. Ironically, it’s not DSL or Cable bandwidth we’re talking about but corporate bandwidth, because it was at the corporate router where the computationally expensive encapsulation and de-encapsulation were taking place. So while MPLS was way cheaper than buying multiple T-1s, it was still expensive.

Now this story takes on a social, or maybe cultural, theme, which is consumer demand for increased bandwidth. Corporate networks were built for corporate applications, which is to say e-mail, file transfer, and, eventually, Voice-over IP (VoIP) phones -- all low-bandwidth applications. Consumer networks, in contrast, were built for pornography -- a high-bandwidth application.

Oh, and for Netflix, too.

Because the applications consumers used on their home networks were so much better than those on their corporate networks, users began to complain, asking for more and more bandwidth so they could teleconference and use social media. And because more bandwidth brought a bigger budget and more corporate-political power to the MIS-cum-IT department, the guys in white shirts were happy to help.

Ironically, it ultimately meant helping themselves out of their jobs.

The demand for higher bandwidth from MPLS begat SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Networking).

If you read online about these topics (MPLS and SD-WAN) most of what you’ll find is marketing information intended to push buyers in one direction or another. What I am writing here is from a somewhat higher-level (and cheekier) perspective, so if it doesn’t exactly agree with the brochure you’ve been reading that doesn’t necessarily mean I am wrong, Mister Smartypants.

MPLS is router-to-router while SD-WAN is effectively node-to-node. It’s networking software running as close to the user as possible, though some vendors put it in an appliance rather than on your PC or phone because they can get your company to pay more money that way. Nobody these days uses all the processor cores in their device, so SD-WAN can operate there just as well as in an appliance, maybe better.

But even SD-WAN is just so, well, 2019. The new technology for 2020 is SASE -- Secure Access Service Edge -- which takes all the functionality of MPLS and SD-WAN and crunches it into a firewall, running everything in the cloud. So with SASE there is no appliance. There can be no appliance.

For that matter, with SASE (pronounced "sassy," by the way) there doesn’t even have to be a PC.

SASE extends both the network and a security model end-to-end over any network including 4G or 5G wireless. Some folks will run their applications in their end device, whether it is a PC, phone, tablet, whatever, and some will run their applications in the same cloud as SASE, in which case everything will be that much faster and more secure.

That’s end end-game if there is one -- everything in the cloud with your device strictly for input and output, painting screens compressed with HTML5.

It’s the end of IT because your device will no longer contain anything so it can be simply replaced via Amazon if it is damaged or lost, with the IT kid in the white shirt becoming an Uber driver.

Since COVID-19 is trapping us in our homes it is forcing this transition to happen faster than it might have. But it was always going to happen.

And the follow-on implication is that anything we might have done at work short of getting a cup of coffee, contracting a communicable disease, or having an office affair, we’ll forever-more be able to do just as well from home.

I wonder what that portends for commercial real estate?

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