Saturday, February 11, 2012

Occupy the Server Room! – The Cloud and Democratization of IT

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter" -Winston Churchill

(Based on a presentation I gave last week at the annual IASEI conference. The presentation was a segue to a CIO panel that I moderated in which the CIOs  discussed how they are dealing with the changes in IT)

I have been following with awe the events this past year from Tahrir Square in Cairo to downtown Manhattan and other Arab and Western capitals across the world. The message is clear – there is too much power for too long in the hands of too few. The masses want to decide what’s good for them and not let a small group of (revolutionary generals / self-appointed businessmen / grand ayatollahs) have control over various aspects of their lives.

It seemed obvious to me that the same phenomena is happening in the corporate world. I am not sure we will soon see the employees storming the CIO’s office with torches and pitchforks, but the distribution of control from IT to the business units and to the individual workers is a trend that cannot be reversed.  It is a result (and driver)  of three other trends that have been as relentless:
  • Consumerization of IT
  • Commoditization of IT
  • Democratization of Information

The Great Democtator

Like benevolent rulers that know what is good for their subjects, IT managers decided what was good for the organization, what technologies would serve the people and have traditionally held all the cards close to the chest. The more complicated the world of information became, the more dependent  the business units and employees were on information technology, the more power IT had and the bigger the budget.
And like any society ruled by a single central power, dissent is inevitable and, with time, the more you try to control the elements, the more people will try to break from your hold.

IT as a Technology Broker
Not so long ago, an employee needed the IT department to do almost anything that touched technology in one way or another.  IT was a broker of hardware, of solutions and of information.
Remember the Wang 1200? It was a big machine that needed its own office space and an operator to run. What did it do? Word Processing! Imagine that you needed IT's help to write a document.

  • You needed a phone? IT would pull a land line to your desk and install the connection, then bring the device (which took them months of research and testing to decide on what model  is right for you) configure the phone and configure the setting in the PBX.  Nowadays you just use your mobile phone and ask IT to pick up the bill.
  • You needed a CRM to support your business process? IT would spend months researching and testing different packages and negotiating a price. Then IT would need to purchase and install the servers (sometimes the DB licenses as well) and that could have taken months as well.  Then IT would spend time on installation and testing and perhaps customizing and integration. All this means that you could not have done it without IT’s crucial role.  These days you would subscribe to a SaaS CRM and try a free trial.
  • Your hard drive got fried? IT will try to revive it. If a few days later they are unsuccessful, you will be issued another disk and IT will install it on your desktop and reconstruct from the backup tapes (they’re in Nebraska) at least some of the files so you could get back to work within a few days.Today, you open your Smartphone and pull up those files from DropBox.
The point being that Cloud has eroded a large part of the need for IT to act as a technology broker. Many of the resources they used to control in the past are now a mouse click away.
Reversed Trends

Once upon a time, most of the technological breakthroughs and innovation would come out of the defense industries, the military and NASA. Years later they would make their way into the major corporations until finally, we mortals would see the expensive gadgets in the store. Remember the Casio digital watches, the TI calculators and early GPS systems?
Well, the trend has clearly been reversed. Most of the new innovations are directed at the end user – the consumer:  Instant messaging, search engines,  blogging, Wiki, web search, polling, social networks and twitter. All these technologies made their way into the corporate world after becoming popular and useful for the general consumer population.

A Historical Perspective

Switch from 2nd to 3rd Gen Languages
It is common to think that the revolution began with the PC, but I believe that the seeds were planted when the third generation programming languages became available (FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, C). This enabled tens of thousands, then hundreds of Ks, of geeks around the world to join the exclusive club of perhaps a few thousand programmers that controlled the tech world thus far, and with the advent of the PC, they could do it outside the stranglehold of the large corporations. I think of it as the Magna Carta of the IT Democratization process.

Personal Computers
First there were the PCs that marked the beginning of democratization. Heavens forbid, people could actually play solitaire at work without IT doing anything about it! And then, when the affordable PCs at home offered them more freedom, they started installing all kinds of software on their work desk tops using those damned floppies to get stuff around. PCs meant that geeks could sit at home and develop cool stuff without the monstrous budgets needed till then.

Then came the internet and with it so many possibilities. Do you still remember the days when IT blocked internet access or limited it to only a few pre-defined sites? Heck, there are many financial institutions that still today do not issue email accounts to their employees; if you really need something done the employees have to use their private Gmail or Yahoo mail accounts.

The internet also enabled the Democratization of information:
WikiThis, WikiThat, how-to sites; the internet enabled crowd-sourcing, so that you no longer needed in-house developers or testers to do the work, and there is less need for  IT experts to help you out.
Social networks and evaluation sites let everyone ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ your products and services, so one cannot hide behind the great firewall any longer. No longer are you dependent on IT to get the technical information. The fact that IT would probably do a better job and will be able to sift through the information more intelligently is irrelevant. The business managers have access to the information and it gives them a sense of freedom they never had before; “Power to the People!”
And, of course, Open Source software which would have been impossible without the Web. Isn't that the ultimate manifestation of Democracy?

Mobile Computing

Anytime – Anywhere – Anyhow. As much as IT tried to resist it at first, PDAs, Blackberries and then Smartphone and Pads became the standard and every CIO had to deal with implications. What apps should be installed on the mobile devices, what kind of access do you allow from the device to the corporate systems, how do you synchronize and protect the data?


Fast Forward Icon in 48x48 pxAnd then along came Cloud, which is a big nail in the IT Control coffin. 
The Cloud became a catalyst of all the above trends. Everything shifted to Fast-Forward.

The Cloud drove the Commoditization of IT – for most purposes a server is a server is a server. And with virtualization, no one knows and, frankly, no one cares.  Gimme computing power, storage and bandwidth, and let the geeks fight the acronym battles amongst themselves.
On the one hand, anybody in the organization could go out and consume IT services without the CIO being involved. Be it a server, storage, backup, development environment or a full enterprise application, it was only a credit card swipe away – and half the stuff out there is free anyway, or available as a free trial.
On the other hand, any three guys and a goldfish with a great idea, (even if they reside in a third world country) can easily get a full development or production environment up and running and sell their services to the world.
Impact on the CIO?

There are good sides to this trend, even from the perspective of the CIO.
Cloud liberates the IT group from a lot of the menial work they are engaged with – wiring, installing, testing, maintaining, upgrading… Imagine all this disappearing overnight. IT can switch from firefighting mode to strategic planning, from a cost center to a value center. The CIO can metaphorically crawl out from under the desk, where he was busy connecting wires, and join the executives’ strategic discussion over the desk.

But the democratization of IT is introducing many headaches to those in charge of technology in the enterprise:
  • Lack of visibility – who is using what, when, from where and how long?  All that information is now in the hands of the service provider.
  • Utilization of the Cloud resources – while moving to the Cloud many have been a substantial cost saving, it may end up being expensive if you do not know what resources are being utilized in the Cloud.
  • Lack of uniformity – each department or individual employee can access resources without the intervention of IT.
  • No control over performance or SLA adherence
  • Support of multiple mobile platforms that is very dynamic:
    • Unknown patched state
    • Unknown application vendors
    • Unknown application compatibility
    • Complexity to access corporate data
  • Security (Access  Management, Theft ,Privacy)
  • Corporate and government regulatory compliance
  • Intellectual property protection
  • Integration with legacy and with Cloud application
  • Subscription utilization – ROI
What to do!?

Bring Down the Wall
IT has enough issues to deal with just maintaining the on-premise IT resources. Faced with the enormity of the challenges, the initial instinct is to shut down all access from the outside world. Think of the last days of a dictator hiding in his castle, living in denial. But the reality is that the CIO has to embrace the trend, not fight it. Democracy is here to stay since there is so much for the employees (and therefore the enterprise) to lose if we rewind and return to where we were a decade ago.