Can the cloud save us from COBOL?
Welcome to Protocol Cloud, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This week: the disappointing return of COBOL, the horror of turning into Lotus Notes, and big news in quantum computing.
Number of the Week
That was the number of computers operated by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1959, when it authorized the creation of a new programming language called COBOL to provide advanced features that FORTRAN just couldn't handle. It has more now.
The Big Story
It's time to stop running to stand still
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of underlying problems with this crazy world: issues familiar to insiders in various fields, but unknown to most ordinary people. And right now, some of those people are getting a quick and brutal lesson in the costs of outdated technical infrastructure.
- Outdated tech infrastructure has crumbled in recent weeks amid new strains brought about by coronavirus.
- Services such as unemployment benefits are imploding under the surge in demand caused by record numbers of jobless claims, Protocol's Mike Murphy has written.
- And the old-school computer geek alarm sounded this week when New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy pleaded for anyone with experience with COBOL to help the state manage its aging mainframe systems, which he said had been in place for more than 40 years.
New Jersey isn't alone. The same thing is happening around the country, and it is not sustainable. Maybe your state or company had the sense to ditch mainframes long ago, but last year AWS's Sandy Carter told me the cloud leader estimated that half of the servers managed the traditional way were running Windows Server 2003 or Windows Server 2008 — both of which are no longer supported by Microsoft.
Companies pushing the "digital transformation" mantra are correct when they point out the downsides of running a business (or a state) on technology designed in the 1970s. But what are they doing to ensure their customers will have a migration path in 10 or 20 years?
- As new Red Hat CEO Paul Cormier told me this week, "you're always going to have the laggards" when it comes to the adoption of new enterprise tech. And (he didn't say this part) a little skepticism about the latest whiz-bang features promised by tech vendors is actually quite healthy.
- But in times of crisis, it's natural to focus on the problem at hand. Governments and businesses do just the same thing. "Right now, as we're all working remotely, [customers are saying] 'keep my business running,'" Cormier said.
As humanity hurtles from one crisis to another over the next decade or so, enterprise technology will expose a new digital divide: between governments and businesses that can afford to upgrade their systems on a regular basis and ones that are forced to make past investments last as long as possible with the digital equivalents of Scotch Tape and glue.
- Cloud computing can help: Your cloud provider is responsible for upgrading and maintaining the underlying hardware, and cloud-friendly technologies like containers give customers more flexibility when it comes to software deployment.
- But it also introduces a new level of complexity into the modern IT department, and if we've learned one thing over the past few weeks, it's that people — even really smart people — have trouble understanding the behavior of large, complex systems.
The last time there was an urgent call for experienced COBOL programmers? The late 1990s, when software needed to be updated in light of the fact that we actually measure years with four digits, not two.
- The fact that many critical systems still run on a technology considered obsolete 25 years ago is … not good.
- "As an industry we need to rethink migrations," Airbnb infrastructure engineer Melanie Cebula tweeted this week. "What would it look like if we built software with future migrations in mind?"
- That is the exact right question to be asking, because we need to figure out a way to design tech systems to be more adaptable.
Either that, or IT budgets need to dramatically increase over the next year or two.
- Banks including Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley reported last week that companies were already cutting their IT spend, and if this downturn is long that trend could continue.
- But in the longer term, modern infrastructure could dictate which businesses stay afloat, and which fade into memory. States might be on their own.
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This Week In Protocol
Mahalo nui? Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff likes to refer to the company's employees as "our ohana," which is Hawaiian for extended family. Salesforce took that notion a step further this week, when it announced that it will give preference to laid-off friends and family of current employees when hiring for 2,000 open positions. Nice gesture? Sure, but Levi Sumagaysay talked to several HR experts who worry it could make the tech industry's diversity problem even worse.
Tag yourself: "There's only three types of companies, right? Companies that are technology companies, companies becoming technology companies, and companies that are being disrupted by technology companies." That's how Atlassian co-founder and co-CEO Scott Farquhar described the current business landscape in an interview with yours truly last week.
Sweet gig: David Pierce caught up with Javier Soltero, who's responsible for making sure Google's G Suite office productivity software keeps up with the times. Unless Google stays fresh, "there's a real risk that you could become Lotus Notes, right?"
Around the Cloud
- Companies that need to upgrade their Windows infrastructure can use a new service from AWS to move those Windows apps over to AWS servers.
- Microsoft continues to show signs it is worried about its cloud capacity, disabling images from loading over OneDrive Files On-Demand and limiting the use of some Sharepoint features during business hours.
- If you were looking for detailed analysis using data from older pandemics to inform projections for IT spending this year, The Next Platform has you covered.
- Workplace collaboration software, which is moving faster out of the early adopter phase than anything in recent memory, is the breakthrough technology of 2020. Notion just raised $50 million in a tight funding environment to chase that business.
- The rollout of a service designed to add parental controls to Cloudflare's private DNS service went horribly awry when the company inadvertently blocked a number of LGBTQIA+ sites, prompting an apology.
- How secure is Zoom's technology? While some of the concerns are overblown, some are not. Here's a detailed analysis of what you should and shouldn't worry about.
- PsiQuantum has promised a working commercial quantum computer in "a handful of years," and has raised $215 million to deliver the goods.
- Every now and then, a sizable amount of internet traffic gets "hijacked" and re-routed, and it happened again this week; analysts believe this incident was a networking error.
- Investors are bullish on enterprise tech. Cato Networks helps companies with remote workforces secure their networks, and it now has $77 million more in the bank.
- Cloud Foundry Foundation president Abby Kearns, who appeared on our Braintrust Virtual Meetup two weeks ago, is leaving the open-source foundation for a new opportunity. Longtime CTO Chip Childers will take her spot.
- Apple has long lagged its Big Tech peers when it comes to delivering internet services, and judging by this excerpt from Alex Kantrowitz's new book, its chaotic engineering structure might be one of the reasons.
The Protocol Braintrust on remote work
Experts in Protocol's Braintrust highlight digital reliance, updated policies and communication by answering the question "What practice mandated by remote-work setups is most likely to stick around after work returns to offices?"
This week's Braintrust is brought to you by Slack.
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