Why we're hard-wired to ignore Moore's Law

Moore's Law rarely influences technology decisions beyond the realm of chip vendors

When Gordon Moore made his prediction in a 1965 issue of Electronic Magazine (download PDF) that the number of transistors on a chip would double every year (eventually updated by Moore to two years and then updated again by Intel to 18 months), it was just a "lucky guess" based on a few points of data, he recalled in an interview in 2006. But the idea, which has grown to encompass ever cheaper, ever smaller, ever more powerful components, has so captivated the IT industry that you can't attend a technology conference without seeing at least one PowerPoint presentation displaying the Moore's Law graph.

By virtue of its ubiquity, you might think that Moore's Law actually influences technology decisions beyond the realm of chip vendors. But the truth is, few enterprise IT shops actually appear to apply it to their planning. Could this be a mistake? If you know that hardware is bound to get smaller, cheaper and faster, can you somehow put that to competitive advantage for your company? And if you ignore it, does that have untold cost?

"Almost never do people look at processor power or storage capabilities and cost trade-offs and decide, 'What does this mean to us in three to five years?'" says Thomas Moran, systems analyst principal at consulting firm Alion Science and Technology. "How does that impact our technology refresh cycle? How does it impact training and staffing?"

Moran advises state and federal agencies on risk management and disaster recovery. He believes that by applying the predictability of Moore's Law to their planning, they could better predict when it is time to move to newer technologies that would be less expensive and provide better performance. As an example, he recalls a government office that had decided to maintain legacy mainframe operations in multiple data centers. As a result, he says, operational and maintenance costs have mushroomed. "They're hostage to something that has defied Moore's Law," Moore says.

In such situations, Moran says, decision-makers forget to look at the broader picture. "It's not just that you've got more CPU cycles or storage -- it's that [Moore's Law] has enabled disciplines in other areas that impact you directly." The question his clients are constantly asking is, "What should I invest in?" Pointing to the mainframe decision, he concludes that "even safe bets often end up being problematic."

The hassle of migration

James Damoulakis, chief technology officer at GlassHouse Technologies, which provides data center infrastructure services, isn't surprised when companies ignore the realities of Moore's Law, since its implications can be both a help and a hindrance to planning.

On the plus side are the technology advances that have resulted from the increasing density of transistors. Green computing initiatives and virtual server computing are two examples, he says. "If you can get the same or more computing capabilities within a smaller footprint, there's even greater incentive now to move to new things," Damoulakis says.

The pain comes from keeping up. "Data migration can be a challenge," says Damoulakis. "And [that] impacts all sorts of aspects of day-to-day operations."

Although he considers most enterprise IT people savvy from a technical standpoint, he finds them less advanced in understanding how to scope out the transition process. "They know 8Gbit/sec. Fibre Channel is coming along and 10Gbit/sec. Ethernet, and what the density of drive capacities is, for example, in the storage realm," Damoulakis says. "The challenge is being in a position to react and quickly transition from the old to the new when they're ready to do it."

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