Monday, January 19, 2015

Exceeding the Speed of Obsolescence

I drive a 1998 Subaru Legacy GT sedan. I bought it way back in December 1997. It's been a great car, but as much as I love it, I've been looking into replacing it. Along the way, I stumbled into an unexpected connection with my professional life.

Back when I worked for the Scientific Computing Division at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado, I spent some time looking at the rate at which supercomputer horsepower increased over the years. When you get a supercomputer, everything else has to be super too, networking, storage, I/O, otherwise you are just wasting your money heating the data center. Same is true for computing at all scales, but with supercomputers (or, today, cloud data centers), you're talking real money. I came up with this logarithmic chart that may seem familiar to long time readers. It shows the rate of growth of a number of computing technologies over time, normalized to unity. For example, if you bought a mass storage device of size n this year, in about eleven years for the same money you will be able to buy a mass storage device of size 10n.

Power Curves

The data on which this chart is based is probably obsolete, but that's not the point. The point is that different technologies grow at different rates. Achieving a balanced architecture is a moving target. As you upgrade one component or subsystem, perhaps because the newer technology is more cost effective, or better performance, or maybe because the manufacturer has discontinued it, the newer component or subsystem is so much more capable that it stresses the rest of the architecture. The memory bus can't keep up with the new CPU cores. The disk farm can't keep up with the higher rate of data generation. You ended up wasting a lot of money, unable to take advantage of the full capability of the new hardware.

The folks at NCAR rightfully worried about this. And it's one of the reasons, I believe, that laptops have replaced desktop computers. It used to seem that desktops, like the old component stereo systems, offered the capability of incremental upgrade. But in the long run, it made a lot more sense to replace the entire system, under the assumption that the new system -- a laptop -- would have a balanced set of components chosen by designers and architects that knew a lot more about it than you did.

This insight came back to haunt me years later when I left NCAR to work at a Bell Labs facility near Denver Colorado. The Labs had a long history of producing large distributed telecommunications  systems, either for the public switched telephone network or for large enterprises, as well as lots of other pretty useful things like C, C++, and UNIX.

NCAR was an organization that never saw a high performance computer it didn't like, and seemed to have one of everything. I had become accustomed to equipment becoming obsolete in just a short few years. Sometimes it seemed like the doors into the NCAR data center should have been revolving, with new computers coming and going all the time. I routinely walked out onto the floor of the main computer room at NCAR's Mesa Laboratory to find some new computer system I didn't recognize being installed.

But organizations that bought large telecommunications systems thought differently about obsolescence. They expected to amortize the expense of their new telecom equipment over a much longer period of time, typically a decade. That placed interesting design constraints on the hardware and software that we developed. We all knew stuff would come and go, because's that the nature of high technology. So the entire system had to be built around the assumption that individual components and subsystems were easily replaceable. Making it more complicated was the assumption -- and sometimes the regularity requirement -- that systems have five nines reliability: that is, the system was up and available 99.999% of the time. This was the first place I ever worked that built products that had to have the capability of patching the software on a running system, not to mention almost all of the hardware being hot-swappable.

Just like NCAR, the disparate rates of growth of different high technologies drove a lot of the design and architecting done by the folks at Bell Labs, but in a completely different way.

The other day I read an article that advised folks thinking of buying a new automobile not to purchase the in-dash navigation system. This made a lot of sense to me. Whether or not I use a navigation application on my iPhone 5, or the Garmin n├╝vi GPS unit that when Mrs. Overlock and I take a road trip we refer to as our "robotic overlord", such devices are on a faster high technology track to obsolescence than most other technology in my car.

That's when it struck me that the future of vehicle infotainment systems isn't to put more and more capability into the automobile dashboard. It's to make your automobile a peripheral of your mobile device. Because while I may still drive the Subaru I bought seventeen years ago, Americans replace their mobile phones every couple of years. Although it has been argued that this rate of replacement is environmentally unsustainable, it still means that my new vehicle purchase has to be considered in the context of the high technology growth curves that so affected my work at both NCAR and Bell Labs.

While many automobile manufacturers provide a mechanism to upgrade the software in their vehicle telematic systems, replacing all that obsolete hardware is a big ticket item. It's bad enough that my old Subaru doesn't have traction control, or continuously variable transmission, or LED headlights; replacing its ancient head unit, the in-dash component that not only controls the FM radio and the CD changer but is so old it actually has a cassette deck, is more than a thousand bucks. That's a chunk of change for a car as old as mine.

What I really want is a set of peripherals -- display, microphone, amplifier and speakers, maybe some buttons on the steering wheel -- that can be slaved to my iPhone while it is plugged into a USB port to power it. And I want it all to work with my new iPhone or Android when I replace my mobile device. The less the car implements itself, the better. Investing in a high-zoot in-dash infotainment system just doesn't make sense, no matter what value proposition the auto manufacturers believe it has.

The broader lesson here: beware of coupling technologies in your product that have very different growth rates. If you must, make sure you can replace components incrementally. If that's infeasible, be prepared for a forklift upgrade. Even so, few devices operate these days standalone; what seems like an independent device is probably just a component in a larger ecosystem.

Coincidentally, I generated this particular version of my chart of technology growth curves the same year that I bought my Subaru. Both continue to serve me well.

But I could totally see myself in a new Subaru WRX sedan.

Update (2016-04-05)

At so it came to pass. But regardless of what I wrote here, I got the Limited trim level of the WRX that has virtually every infotainment gizmo known to, well, at least Subaru.