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Roger Strukhoff

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Ken Olsen Presaged Cloud Computing

His Passing Hits the OG Hard, As We Remember Everything He Set Into Motion

Ken Olsen's recent passing is hitting the OG hard. I've read dozens of heartfelt tributes to Ken Olsen over the past 24 hours, many from people who worked for him, others from people he simply influenced.

Every generation remembers its youth and early adulthood as the best of times. Ken and a few other titans of my father's generation were the ones who influenced and inspired our good old days. His mention brings back into many of our minds a bygone era, but one which was no less exciting than the times today.

We were inventing today back then, and nobody really knew where it was all headed.

The company Ken founded, Digital Equipment Corp., successfully freed business from IBM's batch-oriented mainframes, which commanded more than 80 percent of the entire IT market before Digital came along.

In breaking up the original borg, Digital set into motion everything that we continue to work on today.

The company made networking popular. It brought computing power to the desktop, along with email, the original social networking. It encouraged a generation of software engineers to try to keep up with the hardware, a competition that thrust programming languages and hardware architectures into the industry spotlight. Engineers were the New Cool.

Most important, for the first time computers were seen as communications devices rather than mere calculators. Collaboration was possible, worldwide. The computer was still the computer, but the network became mighty important.

In spawning a new industry-minicomputers--Ken's company drew some of the greatest minds in the world. Digital's success resulted in the liftoff of the IT industry in New England, had a rippling effect through IBM, and pushed Hewlett Packard to think harder about IT as it created Silicon Valley.

Several new companies emerged as well. A famous book, The Soul of a New Machine (by Tracy Kidder) described one of them, Data General, in particular, while simultaneously capturing the industry zeitgeist in agonizing detail.

At its peak in the 80s, the Digital market was strong enough to support not one, but three major newspapers devoted to its customers and technology. It's hard to imagine anything like this today.

The influence of Ken's company on the early days of Microsoft has been well-documented. This influence continued when Redmond tried to replicate Digital's approach to operating systems when it wrote Windows NT.

Ken's vision also presaged today's Cloud Computing era, as others have already noted. He didn't see the point of turning everybody into system administrators.

Decades later, as computers are morphing into gadgets and ensuring that the software works is the providers' problem, his intuition is playing out.

Ken left the company he created in the early 90s, retiring around the traditional age of 65. He spent the rest of his years quietly practicing his faith and working to influence the world in a positive way.

He didn't seek the spotlight, but one hopes that his life and career are long remembered and appreciated.

He now sits at the same table as Tom Watson Sr. and Jr., Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, Bill Hewlett and David Packard.

More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.