Thursday, July 19, 2012

The cost of obsolete technology

Yoani Sánchez recently posted a sad anecdote. She had just gotten away for a two day vacation, when she learned that the server at the Cuban blogger portal Desdecuba.com was down. That meant she had to return to Havana and get an English translator to contact her friend who, following instructions Yoani emailed to her, fixed the problem.

This story reminded me of a visit to Cuba in the mid 1990s -- before Cuba's IP link was established. I recall bounding up a staircase to a spare second floor office in Havana with an enthusiastic young man who proudly showed me the PC that handled international UUCP trafic and hosted some email accounts for Tinored. (It may have been Tinored system administrator Carlos Valdes, I'm not sure). At the time of that visit, we were not political, not Cubans and Americans, but confident, naive citizens of the network.

Yoani's post took me back to that day, because it sounds like the Desdecuba server is configured like that of Tinored in 1995, requiring hands-on management. It also reminded me of my school's first Web server, which ran on the desktop computer in my office. It was running Windows 3.0, and crashed a lot. I had to go to my office and reboot it whenever that happened.

Coinicidentally, I just posted a teaching note tracing the evolution of the ways we deploy applications on the Internet. It has gone from standalone PCs to server rooms, blade servers, datacenters, virtual servers and virtual servers in the cloud. I no longer worry about servers and my Web site and blogs have not been down for years.

Obsolete technology caused Yoani to miss her vacation, but, more important, it means that a generation of Cuban users and technicians are being trained on obsolete technology. The technicians are learning skills that have little application outside of Cuba today. The users do not know what the modern Internet is like so they cannot envision new applications, and trained, demanding users drive Internet innovation.

With the ALBA 1 undersea cable, Cuba has a chance to start bringing some users and technicians into the modern era. (See this earlier post). For the sake of Yoani and anyone who is still telnetting into a computer to read text email, I hope they do it soon.