ACM Digital Library

Communications of the ACM
Volume 48, Number 3 (2005), Pages 15-16
President's letter: 20th century vs. 21st century C&C: the SPUR manifesto
David A. Patterson

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As technologists, we must confront the current weaknesses and deliver on the potential opportunities of computer and communication technologies in the 21st century. Consider this a call to arms for tackling that challenge.

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My friend John Hennessy and I recently traveled to Japan to accept the Computer and Communication (C&C) Prize from NEC Corporation. The ceremony prompted me to reflect about the past priorities for C&C, and whether those priorities still make sense in the 21st century.

When ARPANET was created 35 years ago, there was little concern about security. The focus was connecting as many computers as possible, and then on making the communication faster and cheaper.

Personal computers were invented about a dozen years later. The argument was since a PC is used by only one person, we didn't need the protection found in traditional operating systems, there was no need to separate administrators from users. The focus was making many PCs, and then on making them faster and cheaper.

After about another dozen years, the ARPANET morphed into the Internet, and the World Wide Web made it easy to connect PCs together. A PC user could then access information from millions of computers around the world.

Over those years we excelled at our goal, as we improved the cost and performance of 20th century C&C by at least a factor of 100,000. Clearly, this combination of inexpensive computing and communication has transformed the industrial world, leading to increased productivity and improved economies. Today, hundreds of millions of people benefit from 20th century C&C.

What we didn't realize, however, was that when you connected your PC to the Web, millions of computers around the world could now access information on your computer, whether you allowed it or not. This insecure concoction leaves us open to computer crime, and potentially even to computer-assisted terrorism or war. Just as business embraced the Web five years ago, criminals are doing so now. In 2004, 1% of U.S. households were victims of successful phishing attacks. According to a recent poll, 17% of businesses received threats of being shut down by denial-of-service (DoS) attacks [2]. Indeed, one company refusing to pay extortion spends $100,000 per year to defend against DoS attacks.

Besides neglecting security and privacy, 20th century C&C was not particularly concerned about dependability in the drive toward faster and cheaper. On the software side, the emphasis was turning the advances in performance and capacity into more features rather than improving software quality. The hardware side had similar priorities. For example, the original PC included parity memory protection, which requires extra memory. Cloners later realized they could use less memory and thus lower costs if they rewired the PC to claim the memory was perfect. As a result of the low concern for dependability of software and hardware, crashes and reboots are commonplace.

A third weakness of 20th century C&C is a result of the focus on cost of purchase versus the cost of ownership. Moore's Law, the commodity PC industry, and open source software have all shrunk the cost of purchasing hardware and software, but little has been done to make them simpler to operate. Undependability and insecurity are part of the reason for the high cost of ownership, but another is a general lack of concern about the difficulty of installing and operating C&C. It is estimated that businesses today spend three-to-six times as much maintaining C&C than they spent on purchasing it.

In my view, we have taken ideas from the 1970s and 1980s to their logical extreme, providing remarkably fast and cheap C&C to hundreds of millions of people. But we now are all painfully aware of the drawbacks of 20th century C&C.

Hence, I believe for our new century we need a new manifesto for C&C, and, as is my nature, I offer a four-letter acronym to help us remember it:

To make genuine progress, the "SPUR" manifesto must move ahead of cost-performance in the priorities of 21st century C&C.

In addition to these SPUR challenges that must be addressed, there are many opportunities that cry for innovation. Here are just two examples:

The good news is that less than 5% of humanity has lived through the weaknesses of 20th century C&C. The bad news is that if we deploy such C&C technology unchanged to the rest of humanity, I am not sure if history will judge us kindly.

If we instead rise to these challenges to address weaknesses while leveraging new opportunities—which must include research and development funding to support such efforts—then I believe the legacy of 21st century C&C will be one that we can be proud of.

Next month I'll comment on whether such funding will be available.

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1. Brewer, E. When everything is searchable. Commun. ACM 44, 3 (Mar. 2001), 53–54.

2. Hulme, G. Extortion online. InformationWeek (Sept. 13, 2004).

3. Rowen, C. and Leibson, S. Engineering the Complex SOC: Fast, Flexible Design with Configurable Processors. Prentice-Hall, 2004.

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David A. Patterson ( is president of the ACM and the Pardee Professor of Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley.

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©2005 ACM  0001-0782/05/0300  $5.00

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