The third platform
Paul Maritz is breeding new technology for a new IT era.
Many have been called visionary, but few have really earned it. Yet Paul Maritz qualifies just with a cursory glance of his resume. It includes spearheading the creation of Windows 95, Windows NT and Internet Explorer, at one point rising to the third-highest executive in Microsoft, only behind Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. Later Maritz would assume a big role at EMC, where he soon took the reigns of VMware and guided it into the transformative technology it is today. When Microsoft's CEO succession came up, Maritz was even rumoured as a candidate.
But the man who grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa has turned his focus on what he considers the new generation in computing: The third platform.
"Generally, big waves of change in technology are occasioned by something becoming dramatically cheaper," Maritz says. "The mainframe to client-server revolution was sparked because microprocessors enabled CPU cycles to become cheaper. So, all of a sudden, you could afford to do things like a graphic user interface, which would have been too expensive on a mainframe. On a PC, most of the cycles are spent just tracking the mouse. That was unthinkable on a mainframe, but CPU cycles are so cheap on a PC that you don't have to worry about it."
But the client-server era is being bumped by a new movement, one we've heard quite a bit about. Virtualisation, the cloud, parallel computing - there are many names for it. But Maritz notes the fundamental shift: the ability to join numerous machines together, as well as the storage to feed them, has become so cheap that new paradigms are coming into play.
One app, many machines
"We're in a platform shift and the traditional operating system, like Windows or Linux, is becoming less interesting. The innovation is being done at a different level. If you look at the traditional operating system, its job is to control the resources of an individual machine and allow individual applications to run on that machine. What's interesting about the cloud and the fundamental force enabling new use cases and new applications is that it's not about individual machines, but a group working together."
Maritz notes the modern trailblazers of the field: Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon already operate massive networks that empower applications exploring this distributed power.
"Google and Facebook could not work on an individual machine. No mainframe or computer is powerful enough to be able to do what they did. There are now applications in the enterprise world that require that approach, not quite at the Google scale, but certainly beyond the scale of client-server resources."
He cites an example: mobile operators walk a line between customer interaction and running a network, yet the two areas rarely communicate with each other. The growing analytics culture can remedy this and give contextual information about a customer.
"But to do that you'll need to build huge amounts of data being analysed at real-time. That's no small feat. One client we're working with has over a million events coming off their network - every second."
To this end, Maritz has stepped up to lead Pivotal, a VMware-, General Electric- and EMC-supported company dedicated to creating the platforms of this third generation. These are ecosystems that empower the third platform, with a serious lean towards open standards. In fact, Maritz sees open systems as critical for the future of IT.
The future is open
"I believe the Linux (open OS) model will evolve in the cloud. We'll get a new kind of OS for the cloud that will be adopted by many providers. So we try to be proactive about that to gain significant industry support," he says, referring to Cloud Foundry, an open platform as a service (PaaS) with numerous corporate heavyweights supporting it.
Maritz says the future is about applications. Whereas the previous two generations mainly (or completely) focused on digitising internal processes (think paperwork), the third platform involves and empowers the end user. This is the differentiator - the richness of the application experience will be where the rubber meets the road. So a company's success will rely heavily on its ability to deploy quality applications.
Some commentators believe that all this cloud momentum is less vision and more a reaction to the Amazon Web service's growing dominance of the third platform.
In such a world, proprietary systems are a problem. Maritz cites the mainframe days, where you used to pay a "tax" to run your suite on a given system because moving to another system was impossible. The second generation evolved this idea a little, but the third platform is the tipping point. Mobile phones, for example, are highly heterogeneous, hosting numerous platforms and becoming increasingly agnostic about their ability to run any application.
This new environment requires a world where applications are not limited to proprietary systems, something Maritz says the industry is catching on to: "More and more people are coming to the realisation that the cloud needs an open ecosystem that allows you to move applications across clouds and also build services that other people can use, to sell it to different clouds."
The connected future
Yet isn't that a tall order considering the elephant in the room: Amazon? Some commentators believe that all this cloud momentum, even at Pivotal, is less vision and more a reaction to the Amazon Web Service's growing dominance of the third platform. Maritz agrees that the likes of Amazon and Google can't be ignored: "The new ecosystems have to encompass both Amazon and Google. So we're layering Cloud Foundry services over their platforms. The open route doesn't require Amazon to fail. Instead, you can take advantage of their platforms, but not get locked into their services. It's not a direct competition model. We're enabling the technology."
Ditto for current operating systems: "The old OS doesn't go away, but just gets subsumed into a bigger picture."
So driving this future are the enabling of end-users and the meteoring costs of parallel, networked computing. As illustrated by the mobile operator example, another factor is the Internet of things (IOT): "Everything in the world will be attached to the Internet and record its data and status. All that info now becomes available to be acted upon."
This, says Maritz, is what motivated General Electric into investigating the opportunities of such a connected world, and the pitfalls of not evolving. Seeing the way, for example, online retail is cannibalising brick-and-mortar operations, GE has poured a lot into wrapping its head around the IOT, including its investment in Pivotal.
"They need new business models for clients, so it became a priority to build the new models for this world. And almost every other industry we talk to is involved in this."
It's not an entirely new concept - Pivotal already has established competition in companies such as Apprenda and arguably BlackBerry's Project Ion. But this is one case where too many cooks may not really be a problem. Instead, it indicates the way the tide is turning. And Maritz is not concerned, providing the focus remains on delivering the best applications, not wringing hands over platform ring-fencing.
"History teaches us that a well-formed open ecosystem is a powerful approach," he says.
First published in the September 2014 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.