Emerging Technologies for an Emerging Society

Intkhab Ali, Senior Solution Architect

November 4, 2018

One of the constants in IT over the past several decades has been the constant need to factor in evolutionary or revolutionary technology changes, at least from an architect’s perspective.  Since the 70s, we’ve seen major game-changing shifts, some of which have affected our lives both at home and in the workplace:

  • Emergence of personal computing.
  • Dramatic growth in GIS and more general availability of positioning technologies.
  • Advances in Object Oriented (OO) and related technologies.
  • Proliferation of Relational Database Management Systems (RDMS).
  • Advances in integrated business systems and software verticals such as ERP, MRP, and CRM.
  • Client-Server and then a return to centralized applications and then n-tier architectures.
  • The Internet and all its social media frills and consumer applications.
  • A Mobility surge in applications for smart phone and similar technologies.
  • Internet 2.0 with all its social support for anyone who’s lonely.
  • Jumps in network bandwidth and technologies in broadband, wireless, and cellular.

I’m sure there’s more but I’m getting tired of listing them all because I’m not writing a book on the topic.  Anyhow, experienced readers will recognize most of these changes as revolutionary “waves” that have dramatically shifted the designs of technology solutions (or arguably returned old paradigms) and enabled all kinds of new business capabilities.  I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the forefront of many of these waves as well as the evolutionary or incremental advancements that came in between.  I’ve observed that many of these seem like sudden waves, but if you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ll realize that many of these started years before but languished for various reasons until the time was right.  For example, augmented and virtual reality has been around for decades, but has really come into its own in the past few years in widespread consumer and commercial application.  Artificial intelligence is another emerging technology which has arguably only recently really taken off in applications such as Cortana and Amazon Echo (whilst being now mostly branded as “Cognitive”).

Emerging Technologies in the Public Eye

In the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of buzz pertaining to growth in a few technology areas that most of us, unless we’ve been stranded on a desert island, have been impacted by.  Some of the more notable of these emerging technologies that have taken us by storm include the following:

  • Big Data – enabled by cheaper storage, memory, and bandwidth.
  • Cognitive – enabled by improvements to processors (CPU and GPU) and parallel processing design patterns and supporting systems.
  • Cloud – which has long existed in some form inside Data Centers but recently advanced by a flurry of improvements in underlying services and tools developed by Amazon, IBM, Microsoft and others.
  • Blockchain – advanced by processor improvements and more reliable network connectivity and proven capabilities in cryptocurrency application such as Bitcoin.

And if you’re a technology enthusiast, you may have your own favourite area pertaining to new programming or database paradigms, advanced analytics, quantum and edge computing, computer vision (enabling things like self-driving cars), and business fabric networks.  These technologies just scratch the surface and represent those that I’ve personally been exposed to.

Skepticism…Until It’s Time to not be a Skeptic

As architects, most of us are skeptical of emerging technologies until the dust settles.  We have come to rely on the Gartner’s Hype Cycle to tell us what’s hype and what to invest in.  How many of us have been sucked in by repeated code-less programming products (i.e. “You won’t need programmers anymore”)?  However, we’ve also witnessed dramatic shifts in the industry.  Personal Digital Assistants, or PDAs, were a cute product to help us entertain ourselves, but nobody imagined that smartphones would be an integrated component of the various applications we use in our companies.  Many of us who experienced the 90s might remember our first encounter with virtual reality of time.  It was jerky, had very low resolution, and gave us a headache.  The tech nerds demoing it assured us it would be the next big thing.  The truth is, it was forgotten for a while.  The next time I tried on VR goggles was literally decades later and it was the HTC Vive. It was a completely different experience, although I still got the headache.

The trick is to be constantly aware of emerging technologies, and leverage them when real-world applications come to fruition.  It reminds me of the early natural language processing software like dictation systems, which worked fine for the times but were a bit finicky and couldn’t handle continuous speech very well.  In the last two decades, they’ve moved into other practical applications such as interactive voice response systems, and eventually into voice recognition technology such as Siri and Cortana.  Voice recognition can now be relatively easily integrated into our personal applications with off-the-shelf libraries.  Furthermore, cognitive technology is now common domain in our industry.

Architects Need to Pay Attention to Emerging Technologies

Organizations rely on us to recommend solutions to their problems, but we also have a responsibility to bring forward enabling technologies that help solve business problems.  I’ve known a few executives returning from a tech conference with all kinds of grand ideas on how we should use the “next big thing” and “please get on that right away”.  If we’re on the ball, we’ve already heard of this new “thing”, or we pretend we have and quickly summon our smartphones to impress them with Wikipedia facts.  Many of these technologies are not ready for prime time, or turn out to be hyped claims.  Regardless, we do the research and hand over our report to the boss.

In the early days of Cloud Computing, whenever the topic came up as a possible replacement for our data center, I’d rattle off my standard responses:

  • Too expensive – we’re cheaper internally
  • What about security?
  • Cloud solutions are too inflexible
  • Cloud is an economic model and the technology isn’t there yet
  • And the list goes on and on……

Then a funny thing happened a couple of years after hearing all the hype: cloud offerings got better and started to mature.  Cloud First is now a commonplace cloud strategy in many organizations.  As a consultant, I’m not being pulled into cloud deployment discussions more often than I ever thought I would.  Of course I haven’t changed, but the value proposition of cloud has made it irresistible. 

Similarly, Big Data is now a common thing technological advancement for processing large and complex data sets, and while we can argue that the “Internet of Things” is a bit hyped right now, I see actual practical uses of it everywhere if we look underneath the hype.  This was pretty well the situation with Big Data, then technology got serious and practical.  Like a boss of mine once said, “Big Data is finally here, and here to stay”.  And how can we not talk about Blockchain when talking about emerging technologies. 

Blockchain is advancing at a slower pace and seems to be erratic, but I’d argue that it has much more application than many architects believe to solve business problems beyond those solution areas in which it is currently being used for.  Blockchain is going to continue to evolve and expand into new areas and I strongly suggest that all architects educate themselves on this solution pattern.

Down in the application domain, technologies such as containerization and microservices are other emergent technologies that provide substantial opportunities to improve the way we architect our applications.  Again, as architects, we are best positioned to bring these emerging technologies to our organizations and clients as new enablement opportunities are popping up all over the technology landscape.

As Architects, We Drive Innovation

Emerging technologies have always been a secondary responsibility in our job descriptions.  As architects in the field of information technology, we are well-positioned to participate in the business and help them identify the “right” emerging technologies to empower their users.  We have the ability to see through the hype, as well as recognize real business value.  We need to continue to recognize that we are business enablers with the responsibility and competence to introduce innovative technologies when it makes sense.

Mr. Intkhab Ali is a Senior Solution Architect affiliated with IT Architects in Calgary, Alberta. Intkhab specializes in emerging technologies and solution architecture practices, and has provided architecture consulting services in various sectors including government, education, oil & gas, transportation, retail, and internet-based businesses. IT Architects (www.itarchitects.ca) is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, Intkhab can be reached at [email protected] or 587-353-1955.

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