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Evolutionary forces

Mar 31, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

“If a giraffe is an animal designed by committee, a bulldog must have been put together by a vet facing large house payments.”– “That Dog Won’t Hunt,” Lisa Davis, Discover Magazine, April 2003

The Discover story was a discussion about breeding for a “pure” line, and it stated that genetic engineering of dogs has led to animals that are barely functional except within the definition of a breed.

The story talks about bloodhounds, which have “been selected to be a giant nose on legs, but unfortunately those legs don’t work too well,” and Dobermans, which often suffer from a bleeding disorder and cancers.

After reading the story, it struck me that this kind of meddling with nature is what has been happening to computers on top of the “natural” evolutionary forces of the market.

Over a much shorter period than it took Mother Nature to create the world’s biology, many lines of computer technology have appeared, spawned variants and died out to be succeeded by systems that better fit the market – the environment.

Now we have reached the point where there is a vastly reduced number of species of computer systems, with Windows as the dominant operating system form and a handful of competing operating systems trying desperately to out-evolve Windows.

What’s interesting is evolutionary forces are driving Windows to what ultimately might be a dead end – just the opportunity that competitors want. Just look at the complexity and fragility of Windows when you push it really hard. Doesn’t that look like something that has evolved into an ecological niche?

Wild kingdom

This is always the case: In the animal kingdom, a species that achieves overwhelming dominance usually becomes susceptible to being out-evolved.

And the same thing could be said of any number of companies and technologies in the computer world – the successful have been pushed by market forces and become so dominant that their ability to compete has diminished.

And you have bet your network on these products and technologies. You have taken your network and populated it with a range of species that create a workable computing and networking ecology. And your ecology is probably pretty similar to that of the company next door and the one next to that – most likely you’re all running Windows and Exchange and SQL Server.

And then, slightly before 5:30 UTC Jan. 25, along came the MS SQL Slammer worm, and in about 10 minutes, 75,000 machines on the ‘Net were infected. That’s what happens when there isn’t enough diversity, whether it is in nature or in networks.

Now the Slammer worm wasn’t that bad – it didn’t carry a damaging payload. But if it had, it could have been the equivalent of the 2-mile-wide meteor that struck Earth approximately 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs.

What we need in the computer world is greater diversity. Current thinking says that uniformity is an advantage because it leads to more easily maintained and supported systems. But that same uniformity makes us vulnerable to hackers, viruses and worms. It also reduces our options; you know the old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

What I’m suggesting is to think of the bigger picture – not just what you run today but what you might and could run tomorrow. Where are your current systems vulnerable because they are like everyone else’s? Experiment, look for new solutions that evolve your networks not only to include new species of computing systems but that also give you new options.

After all, who wants to become a fossil?

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Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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