Where IT is Going (Thin is In)

Monday May 4th 2009 by Steve Andriole
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We’ll move into the cloud, reorganize ourselves, and finally use thin clients. It’s time to stop talking.

We tend to talk a lot about things long before we do them. We talk, and talk and talk. Then we talk some more. We subscribe to professional talkers like Gartner, Forrester, Cutter and IDC, among countless other sources of brilliance. We talked endlessly about eBusiness, supply chain management, business intelligence and digital security – and then did them all. We also write a hell of a lot about all this. Week after week we describe, explain and predict what’s happening. We want all of you to talk about what we write.

OMG, is all this really that complicated?

Can we predict what we’ll do after we’re finished talking? Better still, can be predict what we’ll do without all the talking (and writing)? Yes we can.

So here’s where we’ll all going (whether we like it or not):

We’ll all end up in the cloud.

I realize that we’re going to talk obsessively about when it’s ready, what it can and cannot actually do, how secure it is, how well it scales and on and on and on. But we will all end up in the cloud – to some extent or another.

We’re already there. We’re renting software. Nearly everyone has at least their heads in the cloud. We’re also renting hardware – less so than software – but renting nonetheless. Much fewer of us have subscribed to the “platform-as-a-service” opportunity, but we will. Why am I so sure about this?

Because of the combinatorial effect of multiple decision drivers such as: the need to manage costs, the growing fear CFOs have about big CAPEX technology projects, the need to provision capabilities fast, the inability of many companies to police themselves with practical governance, and the endless search for TCO and ROI.

Also because: the lack of expertise about new architectures and technologies (especially Web 2.0 technologies and service- and event-driven architectures), the need to optimize the centralization/decentralization conundrum, and the need to escape the corporate politics that surrounds every single technology investment – among other simple and complex technology acquisition, deployment and management drivers.

Not to mention the core competency argument. You know, the one that asks over and over again: “are you sure you need to be in the technology business?” Regardless of when you date the inevitability of the cloud, we can now stop talking about it and just fly into it, if only gradually, though purposefully.

We’ll completely ditch computing and communications infrastructure.

Does anyone really care about email? Sure it’s a killer communications app, but it’s also the quintessential commodity.

Why are you paying Microsoft (or some other vendor) huge amounts of money to enable your communications, workflow and collaboration processes? Isn’t there another way to get there?

All of those who predicted the full commoditization of computing and communications infrastructure were right on the money. I love to watch the reaction of people when they learn they have 250GB of storage on gmail for free (versus the standard 50MB or 100MB “allotment” that many IT departments “grant” their users).

We already have multiple partners for our communications infrastructure. All that’s left are the boxes, and they can be rented for pennies a day. Come on, you know it’s only a matter of time. Like a month or two. When will you start the pilot?

We'll reorganize everything.

Technology will not cyclically report to the CFO or the CEO. You know what I’m talking about. Every few years – when technology migrates from cost center to profit center status – CIOs alternatively report to their CEOs – who want strategic results – and their CFOs – who want to reduce costs.

Part of the reason why we migrate so often is because we still house operational and strategic technology under the same roof. Why have we done this?

Over the years it made perfect sense because the real difference between operational and strategic technology was negligible or, put another way, because the operational technology tail wagged the strategic technology dog.

But that was then; this is now. The objectives, acquisition, deployment and support best practices of strategic technology are now fundamentally different than the ones that deliver operational technology. For decades we begged the businesses to get more involved in the requirements discovery and modeling process.

Well, they’re here – and they want to control requirements, the prioritization of business technology projects, performance metrics and even the technology acquisition process.

They’re also willing to fund strategic projects. Operational technology teams should not live in the same house as strategic business technologists. The latter team is all about business results – not cost savings no matter what.

Reliability, security and scalability are assumed in the infrastructure. Strategic technology is about customers, suppliers, up-selling, service, cross-selling, marketing, sales and innovation. Strategic technologists should live with the business stakeholders. They should report to their bosses (and the enterprise CEO). They should link with the operational technologists only on architectural and support issues.

We’ll lose weight.

How many years have we been talking about thin clients? How may words have been sacrificed in the name of thin client computing, thin client architectures, and network computers?

It was well over a decade ago that Larry Ellison appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about thin clients. (Not bad for a guy that’s not too fond of cloud computing.)

We were always undermined by the availability, security and speed of our networks – nothing else (except perhaps the grumblings of the Flat Earth Society and the Luddites). Well, it’s 2009 and we’re just about there. We are nearly network-ubiquitous and nearly fast enough.

“Nearly” means a couple of years in case you’re wondering – not five or ten. By the way, the thin client surge is not just about browser-based netbooks with no local processing or storage. It’s about smart phones. How many users really need laptops, desktops or even thin clients versus smart phones?

We’ll get there. It’s only a matter of a year or two before companies de-PC their employees.

We’ll replace ourselves.

Here’s the deal. The skills necessary to enable the inevitable trends described here are often the ones in short supply. We’ll have to deepen our skill sets or find professionals who can help us with the directions in which we’re moving. Displacement is inevitable.

Let’s stop talking and start doing.

Steve Andriole is the Thomas G. Labrecque Professor of Business at Villanova University where he conducts applied research in business technology convergence. He is also the co-founder of The Acentio Group, a new economy consortium that focuses on optimizing investments in information technology, executive education, Web 2.0, technology audits and pilot applications. He is formerly the Senior Vice President & Chief Technology Officer of Safeguard Scientifics, Inc. and the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President for Technology Strategy at CIGNA Corporation. His career began at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency where he was the Director of Cybernetics Technology. He can be reached at stephen.andriole@villanova.edu.

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