Rapid change is ever-present in the technology sector. But given the industry’s relentless drive to innovate and come up with the next big thing, it would be easy to describe what we’re seeing at the moment in the tech world as relatively routine, rather than ground-breaking. Having heard years of hype around the Internet of Things, software-defined networks and network functions virtualization, the effect these things are now having on established markets and value chains seems more evolutionary than revolutionary.
That said, evidence suggests things are changing faster than we might think, and even that the industry is trying to run before it can walk. Take the example of autonomous – or self-driving – vehicles: After a video emerged showing a car’s autopilot kick in to avert an accident came the tragic news that the same driver lost his life in an accident, which happened with the car’s autopilot engaged.
Fortune has also published a story about glitches with the software in a car made by the same manufacturer. The article in Fortune interviewed one owner who claimed he had to physically hold his electrically controlled door shut while he was driving.
So it’s against an incredibly sad and challenging backdrop, that car makers, technology pioneers and innovative start-ups are building towards the end goal of delivering ‘transportation as a service’, where any of us can request an autonomous car to transport us anywhere, on-demand.
The speed at which autonomous technology is developing has created huge excitement among tech aficionados, who follow the headlines and social media coverage with the sort of enthusiasm and passion we’ve come to expect around Apple product launches. The problem, however, is that there’s generally little understanding of the relationship between autonomous vehicles and the infrastructure they use – much of which has been around since before the concept of autonomous vehicles even existed.
If the topic of infrastructure is mentioned at all, it’s usually glossed over as something that will eventually need addressing, just like ethics or Government policy surrounding such vehicles. Others may suggest the straightforward-sounding solution of having dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles – but the devil is in the detail. How will the correct use of these lanes be enforced? What if one of the lanes isn’t available or gets blocked? And more broadly, how will all the components required to make the system work be certified, maintained and updated? Most importantly, how will we ensure the system is safe?
We need to address the relationship between game-changing technologies and the underlying infrastructure. This issue is particularly important for the companies responsible for ensuring tomorrow’s infrastructure is as dependable – if not more so – than today’s. But achieving this is becoming increasingly complex, with technology evolving faster than ever, disrupting long-established ways of operating.
And autonomous vehicles are just one example of the software-defined technology wave. In networking and storage, for instance, dedicated and highly specialized hardware is being replaced by software-defined approaches, shifting what would traditionally have been hardware capabilities into software that can run on more generic hardware. The industrial sector is seeing a similar transition, particularly in oil and gas, where software-defined industrial systems are taking the places of highly specialized and redundant control systems.
Indeed across all sectors, as capability shifts from hardware to software, logic transitions from actuators and controllers to fog and the cloud, the number of connected devices explodes and the network becomes more virtual, the challenge for us all is how to deliver equal or better performance, reliability, security and safety.
Achieving this requires deep expertise in a range of areas, most notably operational technology (OT), networking and devices. For those of us who are involved in this software-defined technology wave, it’s undoubtedly a challenging time, for all the reasons we’ve talked about. But it’s also an interesting, because software-defined technology brings with it amazing new opportunities to create a better world tomorrow.