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Dell CTO shares his hottest trends for 2021: Four interesting technologies, one of which is still borderline sci-fi for now

Spoiler: It's quantum. And who knew? 5G isn't for the peasants

Dell's global chief technology officer, John Roese, shared his thoughts on where technology will go in 2021 at a roundtable event this week. Short version? Anywhere it likes – so long as it's on Dell kit.

After noting that "the death of the PC was highly overrated or exaggerated" – thanks in large part to the events of 2020, users have suddenly felt the need for some extra gear at home – Roese launched into his four main predictions. Three matter and one, he joked, doesn't.

Quantum – forever just around the corner

The odd one out was quantum computing. However, "the foundation of quantum technology," he said, "is very real. But viability is still a long way away from us. We haven't figured out how to really build and scale quantum computing devices, we haven't made them work in the real world, we don't really understand what to use them for at scale…"

Noting that "you're not going to run a web browser on a quantum computer," Roese did remark that the mathematical problem-solving abilities of quantum computing would mean "key management protocols and encryption architectures are not hardcoded and immutable, that they're actually modular, and you can change them out."

But as far as hardware was concerned, not this year. "And so the one thing that's new for 2021 around quantum is that this is the year of experimentation," as developers get their teeth into new simulators and languages, he said.

5G – not just for Christmas. Or consumers

Roese's refreshing departure from the usual hyperbole of predictions continued with 5G as he stated that 2021 would see the first "at-scale standalone 5G environments".

Breaking the hearts of a million flagship smartphone users, he said: "The dirty little secret of 5G is that it wasn't built for the consumer." 4G was about consumer general-purpose architecture. 5G? For the enterprise. Remarking that companies had already begun to invest in private 5G, Roese went on to say that "the underlying architecture of 5G is starting to change. Instead of being a telecom black box we are now squarely in the world of OpenRAN."

General purpose versus specialised silicon

Silicon was also a target for Roese as he highlighted the move Dell was seeing from data centres stuffed to the gills with general-purpose CPUs in favour of what he described a "heterogeneous compute" in which traditional processors (x86 and, whisper it, Arm) were complemented with something more suited to a specific domain.

The importance for Dell, he said, was that "in order for those heterogeneous compute systems to work, it's not only dependent on the chipsets, it's dependent on software modernisation."

"Programming an accelerator is different than programming or virtualizing a general-purpose processor."

The edge: Beware of architecture dragons

For those pondering where Dell's immediate infrastructure future lies as traditional data centres continue their shift to the public cloud, Roese pointed to the darling of years past: the edge.

"It is not new," he admitted. "We all, last year, talked about edge. This idea that, you know, we need to distribute the processing capability of the multi-cloud world into the real-time domain, i.e. into factories and cities and hospitals."

However, what was new was that "we made a huge mistake architecturally in the way we thought about it." Need to extend the cloud to on-premises? Not a problem – Google, Amazon, Microsoft et al have a wide array of devices that are all well and good right up until one considers a multi-cloud environment.

"We realised," Roese said, "that what was happening is what we call Edge proliferation." Dozens of independent devices needed to realise the multi-cloud dream.

The solution? Shared edge platforms. While software and hardware might be inextricably linked for some vendors right now, "in the future, we think the edge platforms are going to turn horizontal and you're going to be able to basically run multiple edge workloads on the same edge platform," such as Anthos or AWS Outposts.

Roese called for standardisation and abstraction of the workloads: "If we don't do this, we will proliferate edges, we will overrun the physical footprint and the cost model and the operating model of the physical world."

And who might save the day? Unsurprisingly, Roese pointed to Dell's own products that are already lurking beneath implementations of Anthos, Azure, VMware, and Red Hat. ®

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