How to keep the computer types from baffling you


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


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.

* OUTSOURCING: A variation on "if you can't beat 'em, hire someone bigger to fight 'em." Eastman Kodak is credited with inbringing the age of outsourcing. The company tried for years to use staff members to manage its growing computer operations, then discovered it was cheaper simply to hire IBM, Digital Equipment and Businessland to assume the headaches.

The idea was that those companies could do the job more efficiently and cheaply because they had the specialists and the expertise. After all, if you're bleeding, it makes more sense to go to a hospital than to enroll in medical school. But outsourcing goes against the philosophy of downsizing; it moves the power away from theworker and to a more remote location.

* OPEN SYSTEMS: In the best of all possible worlds, everyone would comply with a set of internationally accepted hardware and software standards. You could buy a server from company A, a client from company B, a networking system from companies C, D or E, and software from companies F-Z, and everything would work harmoniously. (That would have the side effect of putting systems integrators out of work.) In real life, some open systems are more open than others; some companies talk, without embarrassment, of their "proprietary open systems."

A few words that were once the province of computerdom have now seeped into general usage (English has been outsourced, in effect).

* KLUDGE: Pronounced klooj, this is an inelegant but expedient solution to a problem, or a solution done hastily that will eventually fail. Examples: "We kludged it until we can figure out the right way to do it."

* HARD-WIRED: A circuit designed to do one specific task, or a person with a very narrow and rigid view of his or her job. "That security guard is really hard-wired."

* BETA: The final stages of development before a product is released to market. "The software is in beta" means it is in advanced development (after alpha, or preliminary development). "Her baby is in beta" means she is expecting soon. In the software industry, beta has been known to last a year or more.

* BANDWIDTH: the capacity of a circuit or other medium that carries information, like the "bus" of a computer. The higher the bandwidth, measured in cycles per second, the more information can be processed. "Bill Gates is a high-bandwidth kind of guy."

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)

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