How to keep the computer types from baffling you

PERSONAL COMPUTERS

May 03, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

First, a little quiz for all you executives: Everyone who uses a personal computer, raise one hand.

Good.

Now, everyone who has ever felt like throwing the computer out the window, along with its software and manuals, raise two hands.

I thought so.

Now, everyone who has ever said, "We plan to downsize the enterprise and migrate toward scalable LAN and WAN client-server open systems, blah blah blah," raise three hands.

Yes, you probably suspected that people who talk like that are really aliens from the Planet Unix sent here to sow confusion. The vocabulary of computing can be baffling, and just when you have finally figured out the difference between a mainframe and a mini, they're almost obsolete.

So here's a brief glossary of terms that may come in handy when talking or reading about current trends in corporate computing. Some definitions are drawn from Downsizing Information Systems ($39.95, Sams Publishing, Carmel, Ind.), one of a trio of valuable reference books written by Steven Guengerich and other experts at BSG Consulting, a systems integration company based in Houston (the other two are Client-Server Computing and Enterprise-Wide Networking).

* * SYSTEMS INTEGRATOR: is a good place to start: It's a company that specializes in planning, coordinating, scheduling, developing, explaining, installing, testing, improving and sometimes maintaining a company-wide computing operation.

In the old days, this was done almost exclusively by the International Business Machines Corp. Somewhere along the line, companies discovered that they could often get more flexibility and computing power at a lower cost by shopping around.

Today, hundreds of different companies may contribute various components -- hardware, software, wiring, communications and so on -- to a customer's computer operation. But the added flexibility can bring stunning complexity. Systems integrators try bring order out of chaos -- sometimes with mixed success.

* CLIENT-SERVER: One of the buzziest of the buzzwords, it refers to a computing system that splits much of the workload betweenpersonal computers and one or more larger computers on a network. Think of it as a restaurant where the waiter takes your order for a hamburger, goes to the kitchen, and comes back with some raw meat and a bun. You get to cook the hamburger at your table and add your favorite condiments.

In computerese, this is distributed computing, where some processing work is done by the customer at his or her table, instead of entirely in the kitchen (centralized computing in the old mainframe days).

It sounds like more work, but it has many advantages: the service is much faster, the food is cooked exactly to your liking, and the giant, expensive stove in the kitchen can be replaced by lots of cheap little grills.

* CLIENT: A client can be a personal computer or one of the class of powerful small computers called work stations.

* SERVER: A shared computer on the network that can be as simple as a regular PC set aside to handle print requests to a single laser printer. Or it can be the fastest and brawniest PC available, used as a repository and distributor of large amounts of data, as well as the gatekeeper controlling access to electronic mail and facsimile services.

Some servers have multiple brains, large arrays of big disk drives and other powerful features; these are called superservers. A $35,000 superserver today can match the performance of a $2 million mainframe of a couple of years ago. Then again, the lowliest client today has more computing power than was available to the Allied Army in World War II.

* DOWNSIZING: The process of moving from big systems to smaller systems, also called rightsizing by those who keep their jobs and dumbsizing by those who are suddenly out of work.

"Downsizing is not simply a matter of using cheaper computers to generate the same volume of information being generated on mainframes," Guengerich explains. "Downsizing is the first step in preparing an organization to keep pace with the accelerating rate of change." Think of dinosaurs and mammals, and be glad you're a mammal.

In today's business climate, smaller systems are better able to adapt and evolve, and that's the key to survival. But downsizing is not right for everyone. "Applications that have a high security component, involve high-volume updating of centralized data bases, or span organizational lines should be avoided as candidates for downsizing," Guengerich said.

* CHIEF INFORMATION OFFICER: The person responsible for planning, installing -- and ultimately taking the blame for -- a company's computer and information processing operation. Job

security is somewhat worse than being manager of the Yankees. A recent study found that one-third of all CIOs are not likely to have the same job by the end of this year.

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