Distributed System: Efficiency and Independence

The world is moving from a concentrated system toward a real distributed system of independent operations enabled by modern technology. What do I mean?

If you were a student of computer programming in the 1970s or earlier, you will remember the hassles of submitting a program to the computer center and wait for the mainframe to deliver the results. The computer center controls the output of your efforts because it processes your program. Nowadays, the personal computer has changed all that, no more punch cards and midnight waiting in line. The PC enables people to do work whenever and wherever they want by delivering immediate results, an obvious example of distributed system of independent operations.

What does a distributed system entail? It must fulfill one or more of the following conditions:
*Enable the individual to do independent work and get immediate results.
*Facilitate communications between individuals.
*Increase competition.
*Lower costs of operation.
*Empower individuals and society.
*Diminish the importance of the existing control center or infrastructure.

Note that the last requirement is the hardest to fulfill. Let’s see how things work out in our world.

Education and health care are some of the oldest forms of distributed system. They empower the individual to do independent productive work. When citizens become more educated and healthy, the society is on its way to advanced development. However, education and health care are costing more and more, They still rely on control centers to function such as school, university, hospital, clinic, pharmacy, etc.

What about the ubiquitous automobile? The auto has made some of the greatest impacts in our life for better and worse. Like all productive tools, the auto empowers the individual to do independent work. However, the auto requires an infrastructure of roads and gasoline stations to function. It also requires regular maintenance to be done at a repair center. Furthermore, the cost of the auto does not come down. In fact, the cost is much higher if we recognize the adverse effects of auto emissions on health and the environment.

Now the high-tech revolution has brought us the personal computer, the mobile phone, and the Internet. Their impacts on our lives are obvious. They more or less fulfill all the conditions of a true distributed system including personal empowerment, independent work, immediate results, global communication, intensified competition, and higher quality at lower cost. When prices fall accompanied by rising product sophistication, the repair center loses its importance because it may cost more than buying a new one, which obsoletes within a few years anyway.

This modern distributed system requires a huge infrastructure to function, such as server centers for data storage and connecting cables for transmission, which support the Internet software linking all the devices together. With the development of mobile technology and the “cloud” for storage, the importance of a physical control center to support the system is diminishing, except for the basic infrastructure such as servers, connecting cables, and broadcast stations to transmit mobile signals.

The new high-tech distributed system exerts a very powerful force that may not be obvious to many people . It empowers the older distributed systems by facilitating communication, lowering cost, and reducing the importance of existing centers of control. Some cases to illustrate: Emails cut into the revenues of the post office. Universities are offering online classes. Doctors diagnose and advise patients at home. Writers don’t need to find a publishing house. Musicians need not connect with a record company. You can even make your own movie without going to Hollywood. These are new opportunities opening to the individual. However, this force greatly disrupts the business of the existing control centers. Hence people label the high-tech force as creative disruption or destructive creation.

Consider the automobile again. Although empowering the individual, the auto is totally controlled by the oil industry through gasoline supply and price manipulation. Is there a way out? Yes, electricity as an alternative energy. The electricity does not have to come from the utility company if solar panels are installed that are falling in prices rapidly. The plug-in hybrid and the electric are comparable in price to the conventional gasoline engine but will take time to catch on with the general population. The solar panel is another case of distributed system that will transform the concentrated system of the auto industry by diminishing the importance of oil in our life.

Citizens of the developed world may not appreciate solar energy as much as those of the underdeveloped world. Why? the former has built a network of infrastructure that guarantees plenty of electricity supply. The latter does not have any of those. The solar solution presents a quick path to energy sufficiency for poor and remote regions where transmission lines do not exist.

Solar panels help create a modern distributed system of independent electricity generation without the need for an expensive transmission infrastructure. In this new system, it requires two conditions for efficient operation: electricity generation as well as storage, because sunlight is not available all day and electricity is lost if not used. The former is within reach now given fast declining prices of solar panels. The latter still awaits more advanced technology to bring the prices down. A downward price trend for electricity storage will add momentum to the economic development of poor countries.

Mobile technology is one more distributed system that benefits poor countries and remote regions greatly. Mobile means less expensive infrastructure except transmission stations at strategic places. That is why mobile phones spread like wildfire in the underdeveloped world where telephone land lines are lacking. Mobile technology allows the Internet to connect all high-tech devices, resulting in the quick spread of personal computers besides the cell phones.

(December 2011)

This entry was posted in 21st Century, Economics/Politics, Game Changer, Science/Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Distributed System: Efficiency and Independence

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