Crackpot tech ideas that may transform IT

12 technologies that raised eyebrows

Technologies that push the envelope of the plausible capture our curiosity almost as quickly as the would-be crackpots who dare to concoct them become targets of our derision.

Tinkering along the fringe of possibility, hoping to solve the impossible or apply another's discovery to a real-world problem, these free thinkers navigate a razor-thin edge between crackpot and visionary. They transform our suspicion into admiration when their ideas are authenticated with technical advances that reshape how we view and interact with the world.

IT is no stranger to this spirit of experimentation. An industry in constant flux, IT is pushed forward by innovative ideas that yield advantage when applied to real-world scenarios. Sure, not every revolutionary pose sets the IT world afire. But for every dozen clunkers, there's an ARPAnet to rewrite IT history -- itself a time line of what-were-they-thinkings and who-would-have-thoughts.

It's in that tenor that we take a level-headed look at 12 technologies that have a history of raising eyebrows and suspicions. We assess the potential each has for transforming the future of the enterprise.

1. Superconducting computing How about petaflops performance to keep that enterprise really humming? Superconducting circuits -- which are frictionless and therefore generate no heat -- would certainly free you from any thermal limits on clock frequencies. But who has the funds to cool these circuits with liquid helium as required? That is, of course, assuming someone comes up with the extremely complex schemes necessary to interface this circuitry with the room-temperature components of an operable computer.

Of all the technologies proposed in the past 50 years, superconducting computing stands out as psychoceramic. IBM's program, started in the late 1960s, was cancelled by the early 1980s, and the Japan Ministry of Trade and Industry's attempt to develop a superconducting mainframe was dropped in the mid-1990s. Both resulted in clock frequencies of only a few gigahertz.

Yet the dream persists in the form of the HTMT (Hybrid Technology Multi-Threaded) program, which takes advantage of superconducting rapid single-flux quantum logic and should eventually scale to about 100GHz. Its proposed NUMA (non-uniform memory access) architecture uses superconducting processors and data buffers, cryo-SRAM (static RAM) semiconductor buffers, semiconductor DRAM main memory, and optical holographic storage in its quest for petaflops performance. Its chief obstacle? A clock cycle that will be shorter than the time it takes to transmit a signal through an entire chip.

So, unless you're the National Security Agency, which has asked for $US400 million to build an HTMT-based prototype, don't hold your breath waiting for superconducting's benefits. In fact, the expected long-term impact of superconducting on the enterprise remains in range of absolute zero.

2. Solid-state drives Solid-state storage devices -- both RAM-based and NAND (Not And) flash-based -- have held promise as worthwhile alternatives to conventional disk drives for some time despite the healthy dose of skepticism they inspire. By no means new, their integration into IT will only happen when the technologies fulfill their potential and go mainstream.

Volatility and cost have been the Achilles' heel of external RAM-based devices for the past decade. Most come equipped with standard DIMMs, batteries, and possibly hard drives, all connected to a SCSI bus. And the more advanced models can run without power long enough to move data residing on the RAM to the internal disks, ensuring nothing is lost. Extremely expensive, the devices promise speed advantages that, until recently, were losing ground to faster SCSI and SAS drives. Recent advances, however, suggest RAM-based storage devices may pay off eventually.

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