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Different Phases

Originally published June 9, 2005

Sometimes we are so close to something that is so big we cannot see it for what it is. This is the very industry that we serve– the computer industry. Standing back, from a broad perspective there have been three major phases of the computer industry from the first ENIAC computer to the present.

 Those three phases are:

  • The automation phase;
  • The interactive phase; and
  • The analytical phase.

 Each of these phases have their own characteristics and drawbacks.

In the automation phase, the computer was used to replace rote work. Adding numbers, collecting numbers, editing fields of data and replacing manual workers was the hallmark of this early phase of computation. The computer was faster and more accurate than any manual worker could hope to be. It has been said that without the computer, the manual processing of checks by banks in California would require a significant amount of the population of California to achieve.

In this early phase of computation, the typical applications were accounts payable, accounts receivable, human resources, etc. It is interesting to note that the computer was valuable to the business, but was not utterly essential. Hallmarks of processing at that time were tape-based master files, batches of transactions, COBOL, Fortran, assembler language and reports.

The second major phase of computing is the interactive or online phase. In this phase, the computer could be used in an interactive fashion. Unlike the automation phase, in the interactive phase it was possible to get true interactive response time, namely, response time in two to three seconds. Because of the reality of interactive response time, the computer could be used directly in the business equation. Then, bank tellers and airline reservation clerks could use the computer as they were directly interacting with the customer. Because of this time reliance, now when an interactive system went down or otherwise malfunctioned, the very core of the business was affected.

Typical of technology in this phase was the database, the telecommunications monitor, disk storage and the operating system. In this phase, the computer began to be very essential to the running of the business. It is interesting to note that the users of interactive systems were primarily at the clerical level.

The third phase of computing is the analytical phase. In the analytical phase, data was analyzed and used in ways never originally intended. The analytical phase began with the personal computer and the spreadsheet, but soon spread to the server and business intelligence. With the analytical phase came users that never before had been involved with the computer. Sales, marketing, accounting and engineering all had access to data that was generated outside of their respective department.

The analytical phase is marked by data warehouses, data marts, OLAP multi-dimensional processing, business intelligence and spreadsheets. In the analytical phase computing was opened up to classes of individuals who never before were included. These users included business analysts, management, statisticians and ad hoc oriented end-users.

It is easy to take for granted the progress that has been made over the years. Today we stand on a landscape of technology that has been years in the making. Today there are IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and a handful of successful companies that have been the commercial leaders in this progression.

So what lies ahead? While evolution and time will ultimately decide what the next major progression will be, it is likely that there will be some movement made toward the merger between structured and unstructured systems. There simply is too much data and too many decisions being made in the unstructured environment for there not to be a natural combination of these two environments. But in many ways the union between these environments is an uneasy one. The structured environment operates at the most fundamental level on the basis of numbers. The unstructured environment operates at its most fundamental level on the basis of text. And trying to meaningfully bring together these two worlds is like trying to meaningfully connect AC electrical current with DC electrical current. The result is no useful power at all.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

    Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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