Technology’s evolutionary forces


In a recent Discover Magazine story there was a discussion about breeding for a “pure” line of dogs. It stated that genetic engineering of dogs has led to animals that are barely functional except within the definition of a breed.

After reading the story, it struck me that this kind of meddling with nature is what has been happening to computers on top of the “natural” evolutionary forces of the market.

Over a much shorter period than it took Mother Nature to create the world’s biology, many lines of computer technology have appeared, spawned variants and died out to be succeeded by systems that better fit the market – the environment.

Now we have reached the point where there is a vastly reduced number of species of computer systems, with Windows as the dominant operating system form and a handful of competing operating systems trying desperately to out-evolve Windows.

What’s interesting is evolutionary forces are driving Windows to what ultimately might be a dead end – just the opportunity that competitors want. Just look at the complexity and fragility of Windows when you push it really hard. Doesn’t that look like something that has evolved into an ecological niche?

This is always the case: in the animal kingdom, a species that achieves overwhelming dominance usually becomes susceptible to being out-evolved.

And the same thing could be said of any number of companies and technologies in the computer world. The successful have been pushed by market forces and become so dominant that their ability to compete has diminished.

And you have bet your network on these products and technologies. You have taken your network and populated it with a range of species that create a workable computing and networking ecology. And your ecology is probably pretty similar to that of the company next door and the one next to that; mostlikely you’re all running Windows and Exchange and SQL Server.

And then, slightly before 5:30 UTC Jan. 25, along came the MS SQL Slammer worm, and in about 10 minutes, 75,000 machines on the Net were infected. That’s what happens when there isn’t enough diversity, whether it is in nature or in networks.

Now the Slammer worm wasn’t that bad; it didn’t carry a damaging payload. But if it had, it could have been the equivalent of the two-mile-wide meteor that struck Earth approximately 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.

What we need in the computer world is greater diversity. Current thinking says that uniformity is an advantage because it leads to more easily maintained and supported systems. But that same uniformity makes us vulnerable to hackers, viruses and worms. It also reduces our options; you know the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

What I’m suggesting is to think of the bigger picture – not just what you run today but what you might and could run tomorrow. Where are your current systems vulnerable because they are like everyone else’s? Experiment, look for new solutions that evolve your networks not only to include new species of computing systems but that also give you new options.

After all, who wants to become a fossil?

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