The chaotic dance of anarchy in the data center

I’ve talked in the past about the concept of a short vision horizon. When you’re walking, running, riding a motorcycle, or planning enterprise security the shorter the distance you’re looking the more trouble you might get into. When you are walking try looking directly at your feet and getting around a busy city street. Whatever you do, don’t look up, and you will find it quite difficult to navigate. When teaching motorcyclists to ride it is common practice to tell them to look where they want to go, and keep their eyes focused as far as they can see. Often this is the horizon. The way we manage most enterprise security is more looking at our feet, thereby missing the on rushing bus, and constantly having to clean up.

The short vision horizon is endemic of short term gains at the cost of long term strategy. In the political arena we see this played out as decision costs based on election cycles. In the corporate world it is played out at the costs imposed by quarterly earnings. The shareholder in the modern major enterprise has become a stakeholder in costs and earnings driving business and information security practices.

In my ivory tower, I am incentivized to look at the horizon to provide a weather vane of trends. This is less than welcome by politicians and often misunderstood by practitioners. I do science on the art and craft of information assurance and security. I am less interested in the concepts of basic cryptographic algorithms, and more interested in the ingenious ways we can implement them. I want to understand and describe the practice as it will mature in 10 years. I change the world by researching the trends and practices of the current operators and technicians.

To have a longer vision horizon where you can see the ships rising from the sea you have to focus on the trends and patterns. Many people consider themselves researchers in the domain of information assurance and security. Most people focus on the creation of wrenches and new ways to adjust engines. We have long discussions on these topics and reward practitioners who share their best practices. It does not inform us of the future but of the present. It is a worthy, valid, and rewarding enterprise. It does not change the future terrain we will be dealing with in information assurance and security.

We use the word technology much like we do biology. When we refer to the problems of biology we are talking about the living systems that require study. When we refer to Biology we are referring to the actual study. Similarly technology is an a tool, technique, or process as an artifact of the world. Technology is also the study of art, craft, and technique of using those artifacts that do work.

People in the hard sciences have a hard time understanding that what we do in the study of technology is a valid discipline. We are not interested in the math of the gears though we may have just a good understanding of the theory, but we are interested in making the gears and cogs do work. Doctors, Lawyers, and Technologists all study how to make things work through practical application of science and principles. Technologists started out as blacksmiths, and are now software programmers and fans of DevOps.

So, how is this set of principles of study effected by the short vision horizon and what does it mean to the practitioner? Politically we are pushing the academics further out of the future and into the present. This means we will not see the on rushing bus. The practitioner isn’t listening to the future as the busses keep crashing into them one after another. The result is a chaotic dance of anarchy in the data center.

We are all sure there are academics focused on a bright point of star light so far away, that by the time we realize it is a rushing train and we are on the same tracks, we all will be long dust blowing in the wind. Fanciful, we decry the silver haired academic looking in the distance, but we miss the second part of this discovery. The same mitigations for our anachronistic train will help us with todays problems. The academic literature is littered with the debris of ideas that would help the practitioner of today.

More to the point for me as a scholar. The principles, practices, patterns, and ideas of today are infecting the time line of the future. Inconceivably we ignore the discoveries of our wrench turning friends as invalid forms of science. It is the anthropologic evidence of people adapting tools that is never detected by the pure science and theory community. How can you focus on theory so tightly that you miss the evidence of your own discipline inventions being adapted towards processes and techniques you never imagined?

I look at the practitioners of today and inform my discipline by their activities so that I may better adapt my study of craft and technique. This is reflection in the process of discovery. Perhaps this is even tuning the process of discovery towards applicability to the near future problem set. My vision horizon as a technologist needs to be as far as I can see into the future, and include the historical examples of similar patterns and threads of technique.

This leads to the final portion of this thread of ideas. There are operators, innovators, and creators within our current technocentric population. The operators are the people who keep the lights on, make sure the water flows, and often write the programs or network configurations. Much of the hacker community is found in this area where tuning is the primary tool or purpose of change. There are the innovators where we find the luminaries such as Jobs and Zuckerbergs and the scores of people who are adapting and changing the fundamental world as we know it. Jobs understood and innovated technology. Jony Ives is the creator. Which is our third and often ignored category the creators. The creators start with the blank sheet of canvas and create the painting. The creators are solving some problem and cannot be bothered by finding the tool somebody else already wrote to solve it. The creators are fewer and often less celebrated.

There is no value judgment in operators, innovators, or creators. Society wants more operators but rewards innovators. The creators are rarely celebrated or rewarded. A colleague once told me he didn’t ever finish college but he built his business by studying others and now he hires PhDs to work for him. He is quite proud of that fact, but he is also showing the less than stellar staring view society has towards those that create.

There is a reality in this as we look at vision horizons. The creators seem to be  looking forward and rarely behind. The innovators look in both directions but only minimally. The operators focus on their toes and have no horizon they can see. In some ways we all operate in these roles and it is important to not get trapped in either single role too often. Should we aspire to be polymaths we would really want to have the ability to know many things, and how those things apply to the world. In to many cases those who are polymaths rise to tell us how technology applies to the world based on knowledge that has no bearing on the present. In the worst cases they have neither the ability to reflect on the effects of their decisions or the results of their choices.

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