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Helicopter drones now fly over the surface of Mars. It’s an engineering feat indicative of our time. It seems as though I was just watching Neil Armstrong take his “small step for man,” along with dozens of my early teenage friends gathered around a 12” black-and-white TV. Technical evolution has carried us from one wondrous achievement to the next at break-neck speed.

I am simply amazed that mankind has gone from putting a human on the moon with far less computational power than my smartphone has to taking stunning aerial pictures of another planet — all in the span of 50 short years. Moore’s “theory” has indeed become Moore’s “law.” The free exchange of data and information has fueled this tech innovation, and data storage has had a role from the start. From humble beginnings in the IT ecosystem, storage now drives the engine in an endless race to technical ingenuity.

The Virtuous Cycle of Innovation

Witnessing the evolution of technology is exciting, but directly participating in it is inspiring.

I was fortunate enough to do this repeatedly during my long military career — contributing to the marvel of human invention. Back when I started flying, the idea of improving terrain modeling and detection eventually led to night-vision technology in the cockpit, making extremely close-to-the-earth flights at night possible. But that was just the beginning of that innovation cycle.

As a career jet aviator, every time I flew a mission, I returned and engaged in a virtuous cycle of innovation by observing what was and was not optimal and then ideating about refinements to improve mission effectiveness. Decades later, our pilots reap the benefits of iterative innovation cycles, leveraging augmented-reality-driven holographic visors that extend pilots’ vision, as well as artificial intelligence that manages aircraft functionality in a complementary extension of human thought.

This amazing cycle plays out all around us. We see it reflected in smartphone development: early brick-like mobile phones to tiny clam shells, then on to smart devices that merged communications, applications and cameras, all driven by constantly evolving technologies.

The cycle brings us services we (now) cannot live without, like entertainment streaming, health imaging and high-performance computational solutions enabling the discovery of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines and gene therapies. Do we really recognize the technical marvel in the recent race to discover and deploy a vaccine now protecting the globe?

An IT Infrastructure Is An Evolving Ecosystem

I discussed in a recent article how situational awareness (SA) enables us to better predict how to act and react in a given situation. SA has given my team and me a clearer understanding of our customers’ real pain points and challenges. This awareness led us to consider wider concepts like technology ecosystems, the evolutionary forces moving within them and the shifting role of enterprise data storage. SA ushered us into our own virtuous cycle of innovation.

In biology, an ecosystem is a community of entities interacting as an interrelated system. Now extrapolate this concept to IT. An enterprise’s IT infrastructure is a cohesive ecosystem of software and hardware performing many functions, all interacting to support an organization’s digital activities. As with any ecosystem, the more an entity interacts and interoperates successfully with the rest of the ecosystem, the better off it is.

However, all entities are not necessarily equal among peers, though the role of primacy changes over time.

Traditionally, physical hardware was dominant. The newest, fastest PC was the highlight of tech innovation and news coverage. Somewhere along the way, though, software gained prominence and drove innovation, with hardware assuming a more supporting role. Software now emulates hardware through virtualization and software-defined platforms. And storage, historically the unflashy backdrop of the IT ecosystem, gained primacy in its own right by intertwining with software, absorbing powerful compute capabilities and adopting open standards.

The Ascension of Data Storage

The initial role of storage in the ecosystem was limited. While it gradually evolved into distributed storage networks and powerful network-attached appliances (NAS storage), enterprise storage really remained a tack-on solution, something to consider after all the more “important” aspects of the IT ecosystem were squared away.

Evolutionary forces upended this ecosystem. Virtualization eroded the primary importance of hardware while data suddenly became paramount. Data volumes exploded, data types became more complex and data repositories dispersed across the enterprise, necessitating intelligent and adaptive solutions. Today, storage actually drives new innovations, implementing game-changing capabilities before the other parts of the ecosystem.

Storage is now more of a sophisticated software platform to manage complex data functionality, speeding up access and flow across the entire IT ecosystem. Extreme intelligence helps manage this massive flow, creating much faster throughput, managing data streams as usage patterns demand (think AI and machine learning) and predicting future operations instead of passively waiting for a request.

Storage can now even distribute various functions, achieving scale-up performance with boundless scale-out capacity growth even across geographies. The future enterprise storage solution is really its own intelligent, adaptive sub-ecosystem, embracing open standards to ensure wide interoperability and serving as an innovation hub for the entire IT ecosystem.

The Way Ahead

I am excited about where the virtuous cycle of innovation is taking us. We can now resolve serious data management problems in healthcare, genomics, surveillance and, of course, media and entertainment. Intelligent storage can alter the course of these industries for the better, steering toward a better, brighter future. It is a far cry from the lowly storage appliances of decades past, isn’t it?

It all begins with awareness of your present situation. Had we not gained broad situational awareness of the IT ecosystem and storage’s changing role within it, we might have continued to produce effective appliance-based solutions toward what is realistically an evolutionary dead-end. But we adapted.

As you focus awareness on your own market situation, can you detect subtle evolutionary forces that might propel your organization toward different and more fruitful endeavors? I am betting so. Neil Armstrong would be proud.