As the present looks more like the future, Star Wars looks more like the past. What it needs is to embrace platforms, blockchain and software-defined infrastructure, among other cloud technologies. [WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT]
A long time ago, in a galaxy without cloud computing
Like all Star Wars movies, Rogue One begins with titles on a black screen: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”
How long ago, exactly? Throughout the history of the franchise, this question has gone unanswered. But with Rogue One, we can effectively zero in on a timeframe: between 1970 and 2000. That's between the high point of traditional datacenters and the advent of modern cloud computing.
I know what you’re thinking. The original movie, A New Hope, came out in 1977, but it takes place thousands, perhaps millions, of years in the past. It tells the story of a civilization completely different from ours, with technology that developed in a different way.
And yet, every work of science fiction is tied to the era from which it actually sprang. The Star Wars universe overlaps a realm of popular imagination that might be best described as the “Future 70s.” That is, the way advanced technology manifested in the collective imagination of the 1970s. With the prequels that came out in the oughts, Lucas tried to update the milieu to something that felt clean and new (though set a bit earlier on the timeline). But fans weren’t having it. They missed the gritty feel of the original film. The two most recent additions to the franchise, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, attempt to re-capture that 70s texture.
Data storage on the Death Star
Technology in this (arguably) more authentic version of the Star Wars universe always takes the form of tangible and familiar things: a battered convertible without wheels that a teenage boy uses to get around, a spaceship that won’t start unless the pilot slams his hand on the dashboard, a garbage chute leading to a sewer. The droids are physically autonomous entities that communicate with sound (as opposed to, say, light or an electrical signal), even when talking to each other. There are good droids, but humans who get bionically enhanced are dancing with the dark side.
In one paradoxically Luddite moment in A New Hope, Luke turns off his tracking computer to steady his aim as he takes his final run at the Death Star. When he loses his hand in The Empire Strikes Back, the electronic prosthetic that replaces it signifies that maybe he has a little too much of his father in him. Lasers usually miss. Obi-wan explains that a light sabre is "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," introducing the idea of a sword that is more powerful than a gun. Technology, in this universe, encompasses a set of tools that don’t work properly, or require a master’s touch, or are the manifestation of evil.
Well within this paradigm is one of the central plot elements in Rogue One: the heist of the plans for the Death Star. These plans are stored on a device the size of a Mac Mini, which is hidden high in a tower: a “data vault” within a “data bank.” (“Data bank” is a sort of semantic bridge between “memory banks,” a staple of golden-age science fiction, and “datacenter.”)
The object that contains the plans is located using a remote-controlled arm guided by a human user. When the arm breaks, the user climbs the tower to retrieve the device. Then the data is, with difficulty, transmitted to rebel allies in space. A line of voice communication to those allies is already open, but that isn’t good enough; the file containing the plans is “too big.” In order to transmit it, a shield covering the entire planet must first be disabled.
Taking down a planetary shield to transmit big data
All this makes for fun storytelling, but for those who work in technology, the seams are showing. The Future 70s, in which technical puzzles are always really just physical problems to be overcome by confidence and dexterity, are no longer in sync with the way people actually relate to machines. Nor do the droids and data vaults of Rogue One reflect the way that machines actually handle information.
If the plans for the Death Star can’t be uploaded on a link that has already proven capable of carrying a voice call from the surface of a planet into orbit, then the file in question must be very big indeed. Perhaps it’s 3-D video, like the movie itself. Regardless, the reality is that when files are transmitted, they are broken into packets. The question is not whether a link has a sufficient throughput to handle a given file; rather, it’s how long the transmission will take.
Future-proofing the Death Star with software-defined infrastructure
The Empire keeps plans for the Death Star in only one place, which might seem like a good idea, until something breaks and they need to do some maintenance. (Bizarrely, there is never a discussion as to whether a copy of the Death Star’s plans might also reside, for example, on the space station itself.)
With a little knowledge of 21st century computing, designer Galen Erso would have been able to transmit the plans to his daughter Jyn, the heroine of Rogue One using a combination of hybrid cloud, blockchain encryption, and 5G data throughput.
And the Empire, recognizing the need to regularly upgrade its equipment and to deploy bug fixes, would have built its master weapon using a software-defined infrastructure (SDI). Thus future-proofed, the Death Star would be able to evolve with the times, eventually running on solar power, ergo not having an exhaust port that might be vulnerable to a hit from a proton torpedo.
And instead of being a single prototype that gets repeatedly blown up and rebuilt, the planet-destroying technology should have been a platform, deployable across a variety of different spaceships, configurable according to the needs of a particular situation.
There is another
The next standalone Star Wars movie will follow the adventures of the young Han Solo, and his friend Lando Calrissian, future mayor of the auspiciously named Cloud City. With luck, we’ll get a glimpse of a new direction in old technology. Otherwise, as the real present continues to look more like the future, Star Wars will continue to look more like the past.
Read more about the wisdom of clouds
To read more about platforms and how we're only at the beginning of the cloud era, check out this Ericsson Business Review article on the wisdom of clouds by Jason Hoffman, a cloud pioneer and Head of Product Area Cloud Systems at Ericsson: