Hello, 1998 Calling….

Something magic seems to have happened in the Information Technology profession somewhere around 1998.  I know, from my own memory, that the late 90s were a special time to be working in IT.  Much of the architecture and technology that we have today stem from this era.  Microsoft moved from their old DOS products to Windows NT based, modern operating systems.  Linux became mature enough to begin appearing in business.  Hardware RAID became common, riding on the coattails of Intel’s IA32 processors as they finally begin to become powerful enough for many businesses to use seriously in servers.  The LAN became the business standard and all other models effectively faded away.  The Windows desktop became the one and only standard for regular computing and Windows servers were rapidly overtaking Novell as the principle player in LAN-based computing.

What I have come to realize over the last few years is that a large chunk of the communal wisdom of the industry appears to have been adopted during these formative and influential years of the IT profession and have since then passed into myth.  Much like the teachings of Aristotle who went for millennia considered to be the greatest thinker of all time and not to be questioned – stymieing scientific thought and providing a cornerstone for the dark ages.  A foundation of “rules of thumb” used in IT have passed from mentor to intern, from professor to student, from author to reader over the past fifteen or twenty years, many of them being learned by rote and treated as infallible truths of computing without any thought going into the reasoning and logic behind the initial decisions.  In many cases so much time has come and gone that the factors behind the original decisions are lost or misunderstood as those hoping to understand them today lack firsthand knowledge of computing from that era.

The codification of IT in the late nineties happened on an unprecedented scale driven primarily by Microsoft sudden lurching from lowly desktop maker to server and LAN ecosystem powerhouse.  When Microsoft made this leap with Windows NT 4 they reinvented the industry, a changing of the guard, with an entirely new generation of SMB IT Pros being born and coming into the industry right as this shift occurred.  This was the years leading up to the Y2K bubble with the IT industry swelling its ranks as rapidly as it could find moderately skilled computer-interested bodies.  This meant that everything had to be scripted (steps written on paper, that is) and best practices had to be codified to allow those with less technical backgrounds and training to work.  A perfect environment for Microsoft and their “never before seen” level of friendliness NT server product.  All at once the industry was full of newcomers without historical perspective, without the training and experience and with easy to use servers with graphical interfaces making them accessible to anyone.

Microsoft lept at the opportunity and created a tidal wave of documentation, best practices and procedures to allow anyone to get basic systems up and running quickly, easily and, more or less, reliably.  To do this they needed broad guidelines that were applicable in nearly all common scenarios, they needed it written in clear published form and they needed to guarantee that the knowledge was being assimilated.  Microsoft Press stepped in with the official publications of the Microsoft guidelines and right on its heels Microsoft MCSE program came into the spotlight totally changing the next decade of the profession.  There had been other industry certifications before the MCSE but the Windows NT 4 era and the MCP / MCSE certification systems were the game changing events of the era.  Soon everyone was getting boot camped through certification quickly memorizing Microsoft best practices and recommendations, learning them by rote and getting certified.

In the short term, the move did wonders for providing Microsoft an army of minimally skilled, but skilled nonetheless, supporters who had their own academic interests aligned with Microsoft’s corporate interest forming a symbiotic relationship that completely defined the era.  Microsoft was popular because nearly every IT professional was trained on it and nearly every IT professional encourage the adoption of Microsoft technologies because they had been trained and certified on it.

The rote guidelines of the era touched many aspects of computing, many are probably still unidentified to this day so strong was the pressure that Microsoft (and others) put on the industry at the time.  Most of today’s concepts of storage and disk arrays, filesystems, system security, networking, system architecture, application design, memory, swap space tuning and countless others all arose during this era and passed, rather quickly, into lore.  At the time we were aware that these were simply rules of thumb, subject to change just as they always had based on the changed in the industry.  Microsoft, and others, tried hard to make it clear what underlying principles created the rules of thumb.  It was not their intention to create a generation having learned by rote, but it happened.

That generation went on to be the effective founding fathers of modern LAN management.  In the small and medium business space the late 1990s represented the end of the central computer and remote terminals design, the Internet became ubiquitous (providing the underpinnings for the extensive propagation of the guidelines of the day), Microsoft washed away the memory of Novell and LANtastic, Ethernet over twisted pair completely abolished all competing technologies in LAN networking, TCP/IP beat out all layer three networking competitors and more.  Intel’s IA32 processor architecture began to steal the thunder from the big RISC processors of the previous era or the obscure sixteen and thirty two bit processors attempting to unseat Intel for generations.  The era was defining to a degree few who come since will ever understand.  Dial up networking gave way to always-on connections.  Disparate networks that could not communicate with each other lost to the Internet and a single, global networking standard.  Vampire taps and hermaphrodite connectors gave in as RJ45 connectors took to the field.  The LAN of 1992 looked nothing like the LAN of 1995.  But today, what we use, while faster and better polished, is effectively identical to the computing landscape as it was by around 1996.

All of this momentum, whether intentional or accidental, created an unstoppable force of myth driving the industry.  Careers were built on this industry wisdom taught around the campfire at night.  One generation clinging to their established beliefs, no longer knowing why they trusted those guidelines or if they applied, and another being taught them with little way to know that they were being taught distilled rules of thumb meant to be taught with coinciding background knowledge and understanding and having been designed not only for a very specific era, roughly the band from 1996 to 1999, but also, in a great many cases, for very specific implementations or products, generally Windows 95 and Windows NT 4 desktops and Windows NT 4 servers.

Today this knowledge is everywhere.  Ask enough questions and even young professionals still at university or doing a first internship are likely to have heard at least a few of the more common nuggets of conventional IT industry wisdom.  Sometimes the recommendations, applied to day, are nearly benign representing little more than inefficiency or performance waste.  In other cases they may represent pretty extreme degrees of bad practice today carrying significant risk.

It will be interesting to see just how long the late 1990s continue to so vastly influence our industry today.  Will the next generation of IT professionals finally issue a broad call to deep understanding and question the rote learning of the past eras?  Will misunderstood recommendations still be commonplace in the 2020s?  At the current pace of change, it seems unlikely that any significant change to the thinking of the industry is likely to change too much prior to 2030.  IT has been attempting to move from its wild west, everyone distilling raw knowledge into practical terms on their own to large scale codification like other, similar, fields like civil or electrical engineering, but the rate of change, while tremendously slowed since the rampant pace of the 70s and 80s, still remains so high that the knowledge of one generation is nearly useless to the next and only broad patterns, approaches and thought processes have great value to be taught mentor to student.  We may easily face another twenty years of the wild west before things begin to really settle down.

One thought on “Hello, 1998 Calling….”

  1. I don’t think this is unique to IT, but is more of an insight to human nature. In the past, technology took decades or centuries to advance, often with minimal advances taking place at any given time. Sure, there were rapid technology advances that occasionally took place, and we recognize those as such (iron age, agriculture age, industrial age, etc.). The advice from your father or grandfather was still applicable to how you performed your work, and the older generations were accepting of the one or two minor technical advances that occurred in their lifetimes.

    Today, technical advances are taking place by the boatload, every day. Anybody who begins college learning current computer programming has obsolete skills by the time he or she graduates from college four years later. As IT professionals, we are constantly re-learning our jobs every day. Microsoft releases a new version of Windows and changes the way we interact with our computers; our human nature kicks in and we want to keep doing things the old way. But for the technology to continue to advance, human nature must be overcome so we can best utilize the advances in the technology.

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