Client-serverless is the 4th generation application model

I had a front row seat at Microsoft to watch the first two application model transitions. Early mainframe and minicomputer systems were monolithic, with data storage, application code, and terminal services all in one box. When the microprocessor and Ethernet networks emerged during the 1980’s, they enabled lower-cost computers to work together and communicate over local area networks. PC’s and Unix workstations began to connect to servers, leveraging a new, multi-machine, client-server programming model for business applications. Client-server applications emerged with a graphical user interface coupled to a back-end SQL database (frequently Oracle Database or SQL Server).

Client-server applications were built very differently from monolithic applications, with the presentation code running on the client computer and business logic on the server, typically encapsulated within SQL stored procedures:

client serverless 01 FaunaDB

I watched the client-server journey begin over 30 years ago, while working on my first Microsoft product, the Ashton Tate/Microsoft OS/2 SQL Server.

Client-server applications flourished for only a brief period but they created a new generation of easy-to-use, graphical applications that delivered computing to hundreds of thousands of small businesses for the first time. The combination of Visual Basic client applications calling SQL Server stored procedures built the Microsoft server business and created an entire industry of software vendors and value-added resellers. While client-server has been a legacy approach for over 20 years, many businesses continue to run updated versions of these same client-server applications.

Client-server became legacy because of the Internet and the web. Client-server applications were built for local area networks using chatty, proprietary protocols that worked in a local-area network but were inappropriate for the long distances required by the Internet.

The Internet and three-tier applications

In the spring of 1995, Bill Gates redirected Microsoft’s focus to the Internet with his famous Internet Tidal Wave memo. At the time, I was running Windows NT Program Management so I attended many “Billg Internet Planning” meetings. This was the beginning of a tumultuous period for Microsoft and I watched and participated in everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Together with Microsoft, I learned many lessons from the Internet experience and the antitrust episode that followed. One of the important lessons is how technical revolution creates new win-win opportunities for everyone.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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