History of Information Technology

Over the last half-century, we've seen the advent, rise, and evolution of IT in response to technological and social changes. What once was necessary has become obsolete, and technology that we couldn't have imagined has become vital to everyday life and business. Below, you'll find an introduction to the different eras of IT, each of which built in the technology that came before.

Table of Contents

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The World Before IT

To understand the history of IT, you need to know why we need IT at all. Before programming languages existed, programmers were mathematicians who performed calculations. Computing was all about the hardware, as the idea of software that ran independently from hardware was not yet realized.

Programming languages were invented in the 1950s and increased in popularity throughout the 1960s. The earliest programming languages still relied on math and were not user-friendly. During this time, computer scientists such as Grace Hopper, a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy, developed the first compiler, which translated code from one programming language to another. Hopper also contributed to the development of languages that would lead to COBOL, a machine-independent programming language.

Through the mid-1970s, these early languages relied on punch cards and their specialized human operators to create, edit, and store data. NASA used this technology, which seems primitive by modern standards to successfully undertake several missions, including Apollo 11, the spaceflight that successfully sent humans to the moon. Images of NASA's Margaret Hamilton standing next to a stack of program listings bests her height have circulated the Web.

Moving Beyond Mathematics

But the face of computing was quickly changing. Screens and keyboards appeared, and businesses joined the military and academic institutions that had already relied on computers. In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen envisioned the first operating system, and MS-DOS became available in 1981. Now, it was possible to install word processors and other software on top of the operating system. Computer users were no longer mathematicians or even programmers; they were everyday people. While user-friendly software made this transition possible, it wasn't without its problems.

Enter information technology. IT professionals and departments were responsible for setting up and caring for the devices and networks people were using in droves. They also answered user questions and put out fires started by those users who weren't as tech-savvy. Operating systems and software became more important as the IT field matured through the 1990s. MS-DOS gave way to Microsoft Windows around the same time that Apple introduced macOS. IT professionals had to add knowledge of operating systems and their software to their repertoire.

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Information Technology Matures

The 1990s also saw the rise of databases, which stored the data that businesses relied on for everyday business as they moved online. This data was stored on servers that were originally stored on-site. Database creation and maintenance fell under the purview of IT specialists. However, they also had to ensure a successful calendar flip to January 1, 2000. IT departments prepared for "Y2K" to prevent any costly malfunctions.

With the crisis averted, IT progressed thanks to high-speed Internet. More businesses moved online. New business concepts arose. But the dot-com collapse between 2004 and 2008 caused many Internet start-ups to fail. Still, there were open roles in IT because demand had grown so quickly prior to the dot-com collapse.

After the dot-com collapse, growth slowed, but the Internet wasn't going anywhere. Google became a household name and companies could store large volumes of information cheaper than ever. Hosted storage and services became popular business solutions, and much data moved to datacenters full of physical servers with hefty power requirements. This was the time of monolithic app architecture, also known as n-tier architecture, and writing code was a lengthy process involving many iterations that could take three or four months to write and even more time to integrate into existing systems.

The Workforce Moves Online

The expanded Internet changed how we interact with the world and the face of IT in the 2000s. Companies stored data at capacities that were once impossible to imagine. Much of our lives now take place online. We log into software online rather than downloading it to our computers and save data to the cloud, an application infrastructure that builds on previous virtualization technology, often in place of buying physical servers. Because of this, Software as a Service has replaced older paradigms.

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Other changes are less apparent to the layperson. While users may notice how devices became more capable and the Internet more powerful, they're unlikely to recognize behind-the-scenes changes to software development, application architecture, deployment, and application infrastructure. For example, developers now use containers like Docker to quickly develop and scale apps. We've moved beyond the separation of app processing and data management to defining each micro-service in a way that's flexible and works well with the cloud. The development process graduated to DevOps, combining IT with software development and shortening development time. We'll examine these changes more closely in the future, but remember that it all adds complexity and responsibility in IT.

IT teams must also contend with users signing in from mobile devices, sometimes from across the world as mobile computing has increased over the years. The 2020 coronavirus prompted millions of employees to begin working from home. IT departments scrambled to provide secure devices to employees, educate them on the importance of two-factor authentication and other security protocols, and troubleshoot problems without having physical access to the device. While some have returned to the office, it appears as though this shift to working from home will be permanent for others.

2020 has shown us that remote working isn't just possible but is sometimes advantageous. Remote IT is likely to grow, especially for small or medium businesses that do not require a dedicated IT team. In the future, companies may become computerless and serverless without impacting speed or productivity.

IT has become customizable, so businesses of every size can find a workable solution. Many IT providers still perform duties on-site as well as remotely. Yet, some businesses no longer have dedicated IT departments at all. Instead, they outsource the job to managed service providers. A third option, co-managed IT, pairs a third-party with in-house IT to fulfill IT needs to create the best solution.

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