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Imagine you worked in a data center a decade ago and then moved to a remote island. Ten years later, you’ve returned and it’s your first day back in the data center. You walk in and survey your surroundings. The servers have all been virtualized. Much of the software controlling them has changed.

In short, it’s a very, very different world.

But then you notice something strange: Despite the huge datacenter changes, the networking gear today is virtually indistinguishable from the way it was when you left a decade ago.

That’s about to change as we enter what I call the “Third Era of IT.” With Big Data, mobile, and the Internet of Things putting an ever greater strain on the network, the status quo is about to get thrown on its head.

As someone with three decades in the IT industry, I can appreciate how far the networking industry has already come, even as we stand on the verge of yet another huge change. When I first started at the minicomputer company Digital Equipment Corporation, in the early ‘80s, the IT industry was monolithic, meaning everything — storage, compute, networking, applications — was combined in one central mainframe/minicomputer.

Many of us in the industry refer to this as the “First Era of IT.”

As I continued my work as a software engineer at Digital Equipment Corp, I started to notice changes. The biggest change was the rise of the personal computer, which rocketed into the mainstream and increased the strain on networking systems. During this era, we saw the rise of big companies in the IT industry, like Cisco and EMC, which are still important players today. As you’ve probably guessed, we call this the “Second Era of IT.”

The change it represented was massive. Suddenly, everyone was connected to the Internet. Technology had gone viral. This era marked a shift from thinking about the centralized systems (which marked IT’s First Era) to focusing on individual components, such as storage, compute and networking. That was done in an effort to build the highest-performing solutions possible to manage the increasing computing load.

We’ve been treading water in this realm for a while now.

But now change is upon us — and it’s coming fast. Today, the next major IT transition, which some in the industry call the “Third Era of IT,” is taking place, driven by exponential data growth and the need for a more agile network. In this new era, applications will become subordinate to the data they require. The nature of that data — vast and distributed — will dictate how we design applications.

So now the important question: Why does all this matter today?

A shift from component-centric to data- and application-centric infrastructure will cause the Second IT Era building blocks to change dramatically. Those comonents — compute, networking, storage, and applications — will have to adapt to the new era.

It will drive conflict in existing business models as IT leaders leave their specialized niches and blur the barriers between longtime partners. To some extent, these blurred lines will even cause partners to become competitors. In the very near future, some industry players will come out on top and some, like my old company Digital Equipment Corp., will lose their dominant position forever.

In recent years, servers and other technology pillars have surged ahead while networking has muddled along at the back of the pack. The next era of IT, however, won’t wait for networking to catch up. Due to the rise of Big Data, the Internet of Things, and mobile-social-virtual application workloads, we need a new network architecture to accommodate massive amounts of unstructured data and distributed application requirements.

The Third Era of IT is happening before our eyes and a new generation of companies will emerge to deliver technologies that meet the demands of the fast-changing data center.

Fortunately, even though networking has lagged, I believe great companies are built during times of transition like these. As I walk out into the chilly New Hampshire air and take a look at the buildings that house Plexxi, my newest venture, I think back to when these large office buildings were built, during the First Era of IT. As change ripped through the industry during the Second Era, companies withered and the buildings emptied. As we enter this new Third Era of IT, I’m ready to help fill those buildings again.

Rich Napolitano, a 30-year veteran of the IT industry and former president of the Unified Storage Division at EMC, is the CEO of Plexxi.

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