Can software scale?

EXE Magazine, November 1999

Do you know the story of the King and the toaster? Briefly, it recounts a King asking two of his courtiers about the shiny box with two slots and how they would go about designing one with an embedded computer on board. The ‘engineer’ offers a simple, straightforward answer based on a 4-bit microcontroller with no software involved, while the ‘computer scientist’ goes to great length to redefine the device as a multi-purpose ‘breakfast food cooker’, which needs a beefy Pentium-90 based system to support it. We'll soon see versions of this joke asking how one would connect the toaster to the Internet...

This month saw Telecom 99. Every four years the International Telecommunication Union organises a huge gathering of the industry. At Telecom 95, everyone was talking about mobile connectivity and IP-based solutions for traditional telco applications. This year, demonstrations of voice over IP and professional mobile connected devices were everywhere, and the talks were about introducing mobile and connected devices into the home. Expect this to happen by the next event in 2003.

This evolution raises two fundamental issues that are related. First, in a connected environment, where do you put the complexity? You've got the choice of putting it just at the periphery (in our previous example, it would be in the toaster), just in the network (in the electrical network), or split it between the two. The different choices have an obvious impact on the volume of communication that has to take place. The second issue is that if every dumb or intelligent device gets an Internet address – a world where there'll be more Internet addresses than human beings (ie more than 6 billions) – then we;ve seriously got to study the scalability and behaviour of very large systems.

During a Q&A at Telecom 99, Larry Ellison was mocking the Microsoft strategy of always creating the need for ever more powerful computers for users. He's got a point. The time we spend configuring, re-configuring, tweaking, and rebooting, our PCs is quite ridiculous. The complexity of Windows 2000 is rather mind-boggling when most users just need it for writing letters, sending email, browsing the Web, calculating some figures, and getting some data from a database. The few hiccups of websites like E-Bay amount to much less time offline than the cumulative time PCs need to be sorted out. Ellison characterised the Oracle strategy as: ‘We've been 100% Internet pure for some time [...] the only way to get to an Oracle application is through an Internet browser; [there is] no software on the desktop PC’. So, we've got a clear case for putting the intelligence in the network and having dumb devices at the periphery. In fact Ellison jested that his company has reinvented the economy of scale principle.

Taken at face value, this strategy looks rather attractive. However when asked about what he thinks about micro payments, Ellison clearly stated that it just cantt work. ‘Micro payment is of mind-boggling complexity.’ He explained that no database today could handle the amount of data and communication required by micro payment. He recommended a flat fee solution. I quite enjoy having most Internet content free so this really sounds good, however that's where I started to have problems with his overall strategy. If we add a vast number of dumb devices to the network, which all get their services from network-based central resources (and Ellison stands by his prediction that before the end of the year there will be more networked computers than traditional PCs), then we'll need some rather beefy software and hardware to handle it all. And if it can't work for micro payment, how can it work for the rest? Unsurprisingly, Ellison avoided all questions related to this point.

Another company with a strong vested interest in a similar model is Sun with its motto ‘The network is the computer’. Greg Papadopoulos, CTO Sun Microsystems, is one of Sun's visionaries who spends much of his time analysing what's going to happen and trying to find some answers. At Telecom 99 he shared his thoughts on how the increasing number of ‘things networked’ will impact us. He drew a parallel between (a) the increase of networked computers being overtaken by the increase of networked consumer devices and (b) the increase of computer power (Moore's law states that the increase is roughly 2x every 12 months) being dwarfed by the increase in network bandwidth available (roughly 2x every 6 to 9 months). In both cases, after the crossover point, we've got an issue of scale. Even though he stressed this view, he didn't offer any advice on how to get there from the here and now. He estimates that the gap between bandwidth and computer power will soon reach orders of magnitude in excess of a 1000. The only way to deliver such bandwidth will be to scale networks of computers! But just how you do that was left as an exercise...

An interesting side-point is his view that when we have more networked consumer devices than computers we'll have to change our model for software delivery, from the current shrinkwrap model to a service-oriented one. Another factor will contribute to this explosion of networked elements: at some point along the line the number of consumer devices will itself be overtaken by the number of effectors and sensors.

If we start to rely on a general ‘webtone’ infrastructure without tackling how to scale it, then as soon as consumer devices, effectors, sensors, and all you can think of, begin to plug into this infrastructure it will fall apart. Finding ways to create software capable of handling such a large number of clients and such a volume of communication is a challenge that will show if Computer Science has reached maturity.

(By the way do you know how to decide if a field is a science or not? Simple. If its name includes Science, it is not!)

David Mery

The full story of the King and the toaster is at

(C)1999, Centaur Communications Ltd. Reproduced with the kind permission of EXE Magazine.