The Persistence of Memory

The Forrest Gump of IT has a down-to-earth approach to cloud computing

Photo: EMC Corp.

When data storage professional Richard Napolitano took his first postcollege job, with Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), in 1983, 10 megabytes of hard-drive space cost US $1000. Today you can get a USB drive with 1000 megabytes for $10. Yet for Napolitano—now president of EMC Corp.’s unified storage division—the industry has cycled back around nearly to the place where he began.

Back in the 1980s, mainframes and PCs from the likes of DEC and IBM held the marketplace, and looming on the horizon were the disintegrating forces of Unix and Microsoft. Today, Napolitano says, the industry behemoth may be different (hint: rhymes with "Boracle"), but disintegration is in the air again—literally—in the form of cloud computing.

Two things, though, have stayed the same. Computer storage has remained as boring as it is essential. "It’s never been [seen as] sexy," Napolitano says. "But it is." Even more surprisingly, perhaps, it’s all about the software.

Napolitano’s career, from DEC to start-ups to dot-com era consultant to Sun Microsystems to EMC, neatly traces some of the information technology industry’s through lines over the past three-plus decades. A bit like the title character in the movie Forrest Gump, Napolitano has always been at the center of things—at Boston’s Route 128 when it was a hub of big iron, then in Silicon Valley when the PC revolution got going. Today IT is fully decentralized and distributed, and sure enough, Napolitano now oversees an operation that has tentacles on three earthly continents—as well as the cloud, of course.

As he rode the exponential growth curve of Moore’s Law, Napolitano has also witnessed a long-standing myth that computer hard drives "are born and they decay, just like us, kind of like a banana. It’s green; it turns yellow. If it’s bumped, it’s brown."

In fact, he says, hard drives are faulty from the start, and they are failing in small ways all the time. It’s the enormously robust software—drivers and other controlling software—that creates the illusion that hardware is hardy. EMC’s VNX line of storage systems, for instance, contain some 18 million lines of code that read, erase, write, patch, stitch, and control its disks and seamlessly communicate that stored information to the outside world. If a hard drive were a chess board, in other words, the hardware would be the frail king, software the powerful and protective queen.

Indeed, more and more software will be needed in the cloud era, as personal computers, now as powerful as the mainframes of Napolitano’s youth, give way to smartphones that by comparison are as short of processing power and data storage as the PCs of his middle age. In a data-drive app, a smartphone is a bit like a dumb terminal—if you can imagine a hand-held terminal with a touch screen, GPS, and accelerometers—communicating with the cloud as if it were a mainframe.

Today, Napolitano says, designing amazing tech for the sake of amazing tech no longer impresses the marketplace. Instead, the best systems disappear into the background like an iPhone slipping into someone’s pocket.

It’s not enough just to be a technical wizard anymore, he says. Most run-of-the-mill smartphones today could outpace 1980s-era supercomputers. No other industry has enjoyed such exponential growth in its technology. But the main challenge today isn’t making stuff go faster still. "Don’t just be a technologist," Napolitano says. "Understand how to connect it to something that’s relevant to people."

About the Author

Mark Anderson is an author and science writer based in Northampton, Mass. He also wrote "Six Billion Friends" for our special report on the social Web (June 2011).

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