Skip to Content

Trends in Computing

Since I work at an enterprise computing company, and because I have my own interests in starting a software company, I’ve been paying attention to general trends in computing I find actionable or otherwise meaningful. I do keep in mind Jeff Bezos’ advice about companies: Focus on the things that don’t change, and with that advice, I’m very much a last-mover on the “next hot thing”, like Internet of Things, Blockchain, or Social Media. That being said, certain things about computers and computing, rooted in the laws of physics and human nature, can provide some amount of business value when making forecasts and projections for the future.

So without further ado, let’s talk about some of these things.


Low-level compute
  • I was going to say that Moore’s Law was slowing down, but as it turns out, that may be inaccurate. A quick Google search turned up this discussion thread about some of the aspects of the argument, including cost/transistor and cost breakdowns, transistor type, and chip release cycles. What I do feel comfortable in saying is in order to improve single-core performance along Moore’s Law, not only do processes have to improve, but transistor designs must evolve as well. Depending on how frequently designs change, how different they are from prior designs, and how the new designs are productionized, this may incur a higher overall R&D cost, greater industry consolidation, and slower release cycles. Already, we see Intel moving away from a steady tick-tock model of process improvement and towards ‘Process-Architecture-Optimization’, which may be an attempt to amortize R&D costs over a longer period of time.

  • What may be more important than Moore’s Law is its relevance in a plethora of possible performance bottlenecks. Peter Norvig released a set of timings for operations on a PC. As you can see, these numbers vary by multiple orders of magnitude. The business ramifications are immense. For example, the difference between fetching from main memory and fetching from disk is about three orders of magnitude. This difference alone may explain the rise of in-memory database solutions and data stores, such as Redis, memcached, and MemSQL, among others. The difference between fetching from memory and fetching from a disk on a separate continent is a staggering six orders of magnitude difference. This is why, if you are Netflix and you deploy to multiple continents and AWS Availability Zones, you might devote more space to German movies on servers in eu-central-1 (Frankfurt) than those in us-west-2 (Oregon). If you design your software and your infrastructure well, single-core performance should not be your primary bottleneck, something like network or disk would be. Of course, there are exceptions, like if you do a lot of high-performance-computing (HPC) work, but for the majority of developers, this should be rare.

  • Applications desiring higher performance or resource utilizition rates will require work in application code or infrastructure that cannot be easily abstracted away. For example, many applications cannot take advantage of multi-core processors due to Amdahl’s Law, which predicts the theoretical speedup of an application given additional resources, as they have some blocks/chunks of code or infrastructure that remains inherently stateful and must be sequentially executed. You may notice, both on bare-metal servers and cloud VMs like AWS EC2, that there are only a certain number of combinations of CPU cores and memory/storage/etc. that you can obtain. So, if you were paying $X for an m4.16xlarge instance on AWS because you need 256GB of RAM, but you could only use 1 CPU core, that’s 63 cores you are throwing away. Pricing site here. The previous company I worked did something like this, where the web application was single thread, single process, but the database required a lot of memory, and they were both striped together on multiple EC2 instances.


Data
  • It was an article about designing data pipelines for data science that first introduced me to the data lake architecture pattern. It was an intuitive, yet intriguing, way to think about data: a large pool, accessible via some number of applications, scripts, functions, and otherwise transforms for any number of use cases (e.g., Business Intelligence, Development, Sales/Marketing). A single source of truth for an entire company. Data lakes may be used to share data across departments, keep department siloing and intra-company politics to a minimum, and develop interdisciplinary insights.

  • People hate moving their data around, much more than they hate changing applications. Think about it: isn’t it fairly easy to change your email client, or your calendar client, if you can set up email forwarding and export your calendars? At the same time, isn’t it hard to convince your friends to switch from Facebook or WhatsApp because not only can you not easily export your data, but you need to convince your friends (and their friends, and so on) to export their data as well? Data is a huge moat for large businesses, and something they can easily design a winning strategem around. Just take a look at Justin O’Beirne’s article on Google Maps vs. Apple Maps.

  • At the same time, data must be treated extremely carefully, because bad data can be just as much a drag on a business as good data is a boost. I’ve encountered situations where customers keep their data in Microsoft Excel sheets, and errors occur when exporting to CSV (let alone a SQL database). Because of this, data integrity is vitally important to the success of a company, as it determines how fast a company can develop features, develop insights, and scale to new markets and customers. That’s one big reason why companies are glazing over NoSQL and moving to SQL solutions, specifically distributed NewSQL solutions. Data integrity is a must at any scale.

  • Because data tends to favor those who have it, smaller companies come into data-driven industries with an inherent disadvantage. That’s why it’s important to try and derive as much value from as little data as possible, and make it as easy as possible for the customer to generate data. Data annotation services like Scale API or AWS Mechanical Turk provide human insights into your data, impossible to get otherwise, that can then be built upon by in-house code and people. OAuth provides customers the ability to re-use their profile information across multiple sites, lowering the barrier to usage to two or three clicks.


Service and Deployment Models
  • Software-as-a-Service models are extremely useful for companies that provide continuous value to their customers (i.e. an email service, or an API service). With software-as-a-service, not only do you control the code, you also control all aspects of deployment and infrastructure as well. This means you can do some pretty crazy things, like compile your dependencies for the infrastructure you will deploy on. Here’s a tutorial on compiling your numpy and scipy dependencies with the Intel Math Kernel Library (MKL). You can probably bet that the pip versions do not have this – and it’s just a different compilation path, not a wholly separate library! It doesn’t even introduce dependencies between your code and your infrastructure; all you need to do is configure your $PATH, $PYTHONPATH and any other assorted environment variables.

  • Not every company should be a software-as-a-service company. Companies that provide a fixed application, or do not deliver continuous value to their customers through their applications, may want to consider a single-purchase license, or a perpetual fallback license for a particular version of their software. Here’s an example of a single-purchase license by Timing.app for macOS, and here’s an example of a perpetual fallback license by JetBrains. In my experience, it makes customers happy that they’re getting a fair deal, doesn’t actually affect your deployment pipeline, and keeps your options open in terms of development velocity and direction.


I hope you’ve found some of these insights useful!