Monday, April 9, 2012

Reflections on Technology

Recently, both Mike Smith and I were invited to participate in a panel discussion that will take place during the 2012 Regional Justice Technology Expo on April 19th. The discussion that we will be participating in is titled “Emerging Trends in Court Technology from a Clerk’s Perspective: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”. Those who know us might recognize an immediate issue – neither one of us are clerks! However, through our involvement with the GSCCCA, we do in fact have a unique opportunity to report on changes in technology in the clerks offices from our interactive perspectives.

In preparing for this discussion, I spent some time reflecting on my experiences with the GSCCCA, the clerks we serve, and of course the rapidly changing technology. Since the panel references “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, I suppose it is fitting to start by defining where “Yesterday” begins with me. For me, “yesterday” was sometime during Fall 1996. I was a 19 year old Georgia Tech student, working on a contract with the school’s Economic Development Institute and the GSCCCA. Ok, some of you may be thinking – what could this kid possibly know about technology history given his relatively short existence? Fair enough! Sixteen short years of experience with the clerks is a mere blink of the eye to many, but from a technology standpoint, it’s pretty substantial. Let me prove it to you.

Did you know that in 1998 when the GSCCCA started the process of defining and designing its centralized Real estate index, there were still counties that had NO electronic real estate index? Can you imagine? Also, a large percentage of clerks had no access to any sort of email, and most clerk offices did not have any internet access. Fast forwarding to where we are now, the absence of such conveniences seems like an incredibly distant past, yet that’s the period of time during which I put down my roots with the clerks. So to be fair, “In my day, we didn’t have no stinking internet…. and we liked it!!”.

Along these lines, I first met David Williams when I was working to provide the GSCCCA’s first internet connection. In 1996, Georgia Tech hosted a few Olympic events and also served as the Olympic village. To accommodate the influx of athletes, Georgia Tech booted out many of their employees and generally restricted access to campus. One of my first projects for Georgia Tech in 1996 was to engineer a remote access solution to accommodate employees who would be working from offsite locations. In those days, that meant building a bank of “high speed” 14.4k and 28.8k modems. You may be thinking “why not 56k modems”? Slow down speed demon!!! Those weren’t generally available (due to standardization issues) until 1998.

Through Georgia Tech, I was asked to help provide internet access for the GSCCCA. We initially designed a solution that leveraged the internet access pool we built for the Olympics using a single dedicated 28.8kbps connection and a proxy server. I built that server from scratch, as was the practice in those days to shave some cost off the purchase price. With this solution in place, the Authority office was connected to the internet at all times, allowing its infrastructure of 4 workstations to have instant access to email and the web (anyone remember Eudora, Netscape and/or Internet Explorer 3?) While the solution was eloquent in its simplicity, it was also at this time that the GSCCCA issued its first official helpdesk request – “Can we make it faster??” Some things never change!

We answered the call for speed and the next generation of GSCCCA internet used *TWO* dedicated phone lines to increase the speed from 28Kbps to 56Kbps. From there, we eventually upgraded to ISDN lines to increase the speed (and reliability) to a whopping 128Kbps. When the GSCCCA launched the first version of the Statewide Real Estate index in 1999, the website was served by a single T1 line at a rate of 1.5Mbps. Of course, that quickly became insufficient and by 2002 the GSCCCA has doubled its bandwidth again to 3.0Mpbs by using two T1 lines. Since that time, the Authority has upgraded its internet connection to a DS3 and has increased its bandwidth three other times (6mbps, 9mbps, and most recently 12Mbps). The GSCCCA currently serves over 2.2 billion hits from its website annually and to do that makes full use of its 12Mpbs connection to the internet. Due to growth, load, and changes in how the internet is used, the GSCCCA is once again upgrading its internet connection. You can see that in sixteen years, the Authority has periodically increased its bandwidth from 28Kbps to 12Mbps. This is an amazing increase of over 428 times the speed. And yet, technology continues to improve while becoming more available and cost effective. As a result, the GSCCCA’s next internet upgrade (scheduled April, 2012) will move from 12Mbps to 1000Mbps while REDUCING the overall cost of the internet connection substantially. This is nearly 84 times faster than the GSCCCA’s current internet connection, and an amazing 35,714 times faster than where we were 16 short years ago.

I've reflected on only one aspect of the changes I've seen though there are many, many more. Some of the biggest changes are not related to WHAT has changed but how it's changed. For instance, clearly the internet has been around since my start in the business, but the usage has increased substantially. Furthermore, the types of use have changed -- Social Media, streaming video, mobile access... All of these topics will be fair game during our panel discussion on April 19th. Perhaps one day when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic, I will reflect on another aspect of technology change.

Do you have technology memories you want to share? Please comment and share your thoughts!