The Deconstruction of Things
This is for those of us who lived the bulk of our lives before digital – back when cable equipment was still tactile. Back when a telephone call could go like this: “If you were to place your new product in my hands, what would it look like, how much would it weigh, and what would it do?”
Alas. It is both true and unstoppable: Software is eating the world, and the only damn thing we can do about it is to go with the flow. Physical things become a recital of ones and zeros – the currency of digital.
Here’s what’s going on: The deconstruction of things into their constituent parts.
What used to be done in physical hunks of rack-mounted metal become strings of code, with acronym-heavy lingo: Software Defined Networks. Network Function Virtualization. Distributed Broadband Architectures.
Yes, that’s right. Even the most physical of all things cable – the plant – is on track to be torn down (not literally, Wall Street) and replicated in software.
An easy early example, in hindsight, is VOD equipment. Its two missions, storing and streaming, used to come in one box. When it became clear that each grew at different rates, buyers insisted upon ordering them separately.
In part, “virtualization” is happening as a way to break free from “monolithic systems.” All-inclusive things one buys from one place. In the software world, monolithic is bad. Modular is good. Put entry and exit doors on it, in code, that a software developer can manipulate via an API – Applications Program Interface.
Mix and match, with code. It’s like Garanimals, except not for clothing.
A recent example, which will happen in our lifetime, is the reduction of the hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network. How it works now, in a gross oversimplification: Signals come in to a physical location. The headend. There, they’re received, demodulated, decrypted, processed, re-modulated, and recombined with other signals. They’re jammed into a laser, and pushed out, over fiber, then coax, to homes.
Soon enough, those activities get teased out, replicated in code, and put on a chip. Functions that used to take an entire building to house, condensed into software, on a chip. This is how the “headend” morphs into the “data center.”
Just ask Aurora Networks, which makes the opto-electronics that are foundational to HFC. It’s out with a way to modularize and collapse the work of the headend into modules that snaps into nodes, deep inside neighborhoods.
Likewise for the back office, already being virtualized, modularized, and re-skinned with “open-source” ways to get at it, even if you’re not a software engineer.
Progress, right? (Aside: Reader Roger, I realize that this is far from a tilting at a windmill.)
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.