Technology … all successful technology … follows a predictable life cycle: Hype, Disillusionment, Application.

Some academic type or other hatches a nifty idea in a university lab and industry pundits explain why it will never fly (it’s impossible in the first place, it won’t scale up, it’s technology-driven instead of a response to customer demand … you know this predictable litany of nay-saying foolishness).

When it flies anyway, the Wall Street Journal runs an article proclaiming it to be real, and everyone starts hyping the daylights out of it, creating hysterical promises of its wonders.

Driven by piles of money, early adopters glom onto the technology and figure out how to make it work outside the lab. For some reason, people express surprise at how complicated it turns out to be, and become disillusioned that it didn’t get us to Mars, cure cancer, and repel sharks without costing more than a dime.

As this disillusionment reaches a crescendo of I-told-you-so-ism, led by headline-grabbing cost-accountants brandishing wildly inflated cost estimates, unimpressed professionals figure out what the technology is really good for, and make solid returns on their investments in it.

Client/server technology has just entered the disillusionment phase. I have proof – a growing collection of recent articles proclaiming the imminent demise of client/server computing. Performance problems and cost overruns are killing it, we’re told, but Intranets will save it.

Perfect: a technology hitting its stride in the Hype phase will rescue its predecessor from Disillusionment.

What a bunch of malarkey.

It’s absolutely true that far too many client/server development projects run way over the originally estimated cost. It’s also true that most client/server implementations experience performance problems.

Big deal. Here’s a fact: most information systems projects, regardless of platform, experience cost overruns, implementation delays, and initial performance problems, if they ever get finished at all. Neither the problem nor the solution has anything to do with technology – look, instead, to ancient and poorly conceived development methodologies, poor project management, and a bad job of managing expectations.

I’m hearing industry “experts” talk about costs three to six times greater than for comparable mainframe systems – and these are people who ought to know better.

I have yet to see a mainframe system that’s remotely comparable to a client/server system. If anyone bothered to create a client/server application that used character-mode screens to provide the user-hostile interface typical of mainframe systems, the cost comparison would look very different. The cost of GUI design and coding is being assigned to the client/server architecture, leading to a lot of unnecessary confusion. But of course, a headline reading, “GUIs Cost More than 3278 Screens!” wouldn’t grab much attention.

And this points us to the key issue: the client/server environment isn’t just a different kind of mainframe. It’s a different kind of environment with different strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics. Client/server projects get into the worst trouble when developers ignore those differences.

Client/server systems do interactive processing very well. Big batch runs tend to create challenges. Mainframes are optimized for batch, with industrial-strength scheduling systems and screamingly fast block I/O processing. They’re not as good, though, at on-line interactive work.

You can interface client/server systems to anything at all with relative ease. You interface with mainframe systems either by emulating a terminal and “screen-scraping,” by buying hyper-expensive middleware gateways (I wonder how much of the typical client/server cost over-run comes from the need for interfaces with legacy systems?), or by the arcane issues of setting up and interfacing with LU2 process-to-process communication.

And of course, the development tools available for client/server development make those available for mainframes look sickly. Here’s a question for you to ponder: Delphi, Powerbuilder and Visual Basic all make a programmer easily 100 times more productive than languages like Cobol. So why aren’t we building the same size systems today with 1/100th the staff?

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader.