Universities and long term perspectives

September 29, 2013

I expect that in many places my habit of looking five or ten years into the future for things I'm considering would be seen as more than a little bit daft and pointless. In a company the problems you have in five or ten years are likely to look much different than what you have today; if a system has survived at all, it's quite likely to have grown or otherwise changed drastically as the business scaled up or mutated (this is especially true in startups and other small companies that are trying hard to grow).

This is not the case at universities. It is a rare department that changes so much in even ten years as to require its existing IT systems to change dramatically. Departments just generally don't get drastically larger or smaller or different; the fundamental things that they do haven't changed for a long time (and are unlikely to change in the future) and changes in scale tend to be quite slow. A department doubling in size is considered really drastic growth.

(Universities also naturally have a significant amount of stability in who is there. Professors generally have tenure and so stay for decades while graduate students frequently take half a decade or more from when they start to when they get their PhD and leave. Even the undergraduates are generally here for four or five years.)

The result is that software and large scale systems can routinely live for a long time, and in fact the long term people like this long term stability in the environment around them. Of course in an ideal environment you'll turn over the physical hardware reasonably frequently, but your overall design can stay the same because the work it needs to do is the same and scope and scale haven't changed drastically. Real shifts in technology or in the demand for services are relatively infrequent (at least in my experience).

(Of course you don't have to keep systems going for five or ten years, but change for the sake of change and nothing more is generally not a good thing. In some ways this is a luxury and in some ways this is a burden.)

Written on 29 September 2013.
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Last modified: Sun Sep 29 00:45:52 2013
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