For example, while computers were initially used in weather forecasting as no more than an efficient way to assemble observations and do calculations, today our understanding of weather is almost entirely mediated by computational models. Another example is biology. Where once research was done entirely in the lab or in the wild and then captured in a model, it often now begins in a predictive model, which then determines what might be explored in the real world. The transformation that is due to computation is often described as digital disruption.
But an aspect of this transformation that can easily be overlooked is that computing has been disrupting itself.
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Each wave of new computational technology has tended to lead to new kinds of systems, new ways of creating tools, new forms of data, and so on, which have often overturned their predecessors. What has seemed to be evolution is, in some ways, a series of revolutions.
Edge Computing — The New Frontier of the Web
For example, there is a chain of inspiration from waterwheel, to steam engine, to internal combustion engine. Underlying this is a process of enablement.
The industry of steam engine construction yielded the skills, materials and tools used in construction of the first internal combustion engines. In computing, something richer is happening where new technologies emerge, not only by replacing predecessors, but also by enveloping them. Computing is creating platforms on which it reinvents itself, reaching up to the next platform. Arguably, the most dramatic of these innovations is the web. During the s and s, there were independent advances in the availability of cheap, fast computing, of affordable disk storage and of networking.
Compute and storage were taken up in personal computers, which at that stage were standalone, used almost entirely for gaming and word processing. At the same time, networking technologies became pervasive in university computer science departments, where they enabled, for the first time, the collaborative development of software.
What is Just-In-Time Manufacturing (JIT)?
This was the emergence of a culture of open-source development, in which widely spread communities not only used common operating systems, programming languages and tools, but collaboratively contributed to them. As networks spread, tools developed in one place could be rapidly promoted, shared and deployed elsewhere. This dramatically changed the notion of software ownership, of how software was designed and created, and of who controlled the environments we use. The networks themselves became more uniform and interlinked, creating the global internet, a digital traffic infrastructure.
Increases in computing power meant there was spare capacity for providing services remotely.
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The falling cost of disk meant that system administrators could set aside storage to host repositories that could be accessed globally. The internet was thus used not just for email and chat forums known then as news groups but, increasingly, as an exchange mechanism for data and code. This was in strong contrast to the systems used in business at that time, which were customised, isolated, and rigid. With hindsight, the confluence of networking, compute and storage at the start of the s, coupled with the open-source culture of sharing, seems almost miraculous.
An environment ready for something remarkable, but without even a hint of what that thing might be. Meanwhile, in , researchers at CERN, including Tim Berners-Lee , created a system for storing documents and publishing them to the internet, which they called the world wide web. As knowledge of this system spread on the internet transmitted by the new model of open-source software systems , people began using it via increasingly sophisticated browsers.
They also began to write documents specifically for online publication — that is, web pages. As web pages became interactive and resources moved online, the web became a platform that has transformed society.
Setting Up Environments Manually
Droplet has built upon the idea of WebAssembly and created a just-in-time compiler that converts applications written for older operating systems into WebAssembly code on the fly. It's a lot like Java, but instead of needing a very specific version of the Java Virtual Machine installed ahead of time and all the problems that has caused over the years , WebAssembly is available right now in the four major browsers: Chrome, WebKit, Edge, and Firefox.
The promise of Java was write once, run anywhere software, yet it never quite happened, but that's the potential that Droplet Computing conjures in my mind. This creates a host of intriguing ideas, and Droplet is looking at some of them as potential markets for the technology it's developed. One of the ideas is to use the browser as a kind of virtual machine in the way VMware turned physical hardware into a place to host multiple virtual machines. One of the early uses for this mechanism was to run older operating systems on new hardware.
Think Windows NT3. Why do this? Because of old applications. The applications were important for various business reasons, but they were written for a specific target operating system.
Evolution and revolution
The applications didn't work on newer operating systems, but rewriting them wasn't viable for a variety of reasons: no source code, no money for the development effort, etc. But the old operating systems often had trouble running on newer hardware.
To this end, VMware was a godsend. Instead of re-platforming the apps before the obsolete hardware wore out, the operating system could be migrated to virtual hardware running in the VMware hypervisor. Then the system could keep running, happily abstracted away from the physical world. The world is currently full of custom-built applications written for obsolete operating systems.
Millions of dollars of equipment would become useless without that old, unpatched, insecure hunk of anachronistic computer attached to it. Lift up the rug of healthcare and educational computing and you will find all manner of problems swept under there. Problems that become just a little more tractable with what Droplet Computing are proposing.