This week, I'm working on a project that involves defining the data center of the future and one of the first elements to come up is agility. The discussions have been fascinating because the definitions differ a great deal between what vendors - who market agility - mean, what IT seems to hear and what line management appears to want. The growing concern is that we have been on a decentralization cycle of late with regard to budgetary control and the cloud has emerged as the most powerful "screw IT" tool that has existed since the personal computer was created.
Let's take a look at what is happening, why it puts IT at risk and what you can do about it.
Scary Stories (What's Happening)
I've had some great scary stories about cloud computing of late. My favorite remains the one about the three engineers who worked for a pharmaceutical company who were given a massive problem to solve with respect to the development of a new drug. As is often the case, they weren't given much of a budget, and when they went to IT they were told that the hardware and software needed would cost $130,000 and the timeline was likely somewhere between six months and a year for completion.
Given the timeline alone would likely crater their annual review, they went to the cloud and, at a cost of around $3,500, rented the capacity they needed and completed the project in a few weeks. They were given an award for saving money and, on the following day, were terminated for violating security. Apparently their effort exposed one of the most secret and well-protected projects the company had under development. There are several lessons here, but my big takeaway was that IT wasn't agile enough, which resulted in a creative decision that, while tactically brilliant, was suicidal for both the company and these three engineers strategically. The firm lost three really smart guys and exposed a very valuable asset because IT couldn't step up.
The next story is more recent. The CFO was tracking charges on company credit cards for Amazon (can you see this coming?) and initiated a fraud investigation because it appeared folks were using the cards for personal expenses. What was troubling was the consistency in the amounts. It appeared that a lot of folks were buying similar things. Turns out, it was charges for Amazon's cloud services; employees were actively bypassing IT and using Amazon as their resource for a vast number of projects all over the company - none of which were meeting security or approval requirements. For an entire class of activities, IT had been rendered redundant. The cause was that it was simpler, quicker and cheaper to use Amazon and line management had no issue approving the charges. The CIO who shared this story felt it was one of the biggest problems he now has to deal with.
IT at Risk
If you draw a line, both of these tales, which are not uncommon at all, indicate that IT is slowly becoming obsolete. These cloud services will continue to advance and increasingly address the security concerns that create problems for them. These security concerns are a barrier to sales for them and represent a high priority. Companies like Microsoft, IBM, HP, EMC and others are in the process of bringing forward their own cloud services, and while they haven't generally become as easy to work with as an Amazon yet, all it will take is one of these companies to cross this line and provide an adequately secured auditable service for a lot of IT folks to suddenly find the need for a new career path.
IT has competition, and it isn't the first time. When PCs came to market in the '80s, IT was largely displaced by them. It retained a lot of core power, but it was vastly reduced. This is a similar cycle and while IT will survive it, if the function doesn't step up to the competitive risk, much of the budget it now gets will end up with companies like Amazon and Google.
The Agile IT Department
While this is clearly a work in progress, at the core of the new agile IT department (at least a successful one) is the realization that it is in competition with the low-cost cloud services. This means that not only must it use a variety of tools to be flexible, it must address ease of doing business problems as well, so it is at least as easy to engage IT as it is to engage a third-party service. IT can't just be an extra-cost layer either; it has to show value for that cost, assuring the security of inexpensive services, helping the line employees both save money and protect their jobs (while protecting their own), and become more of a partner and less of an impediment.
IT has traditionally been reactive and, in this new world, being reactive should equate with being obsolete. This is because cloud services will likely be better at being reactive than IT can ever be. Where IT has the advantage is that it is inside the business and should be able to better anticipate a need than any external service. I know the concept of being proactive may seem trite, but it has never been more true.
In short, if IT can fill the need as quickly and more safely, then it can carry a higher cost and still be a good value.
Wrapping Up: Customer Care
As I go through this project, what seems to sink through is that this is less of a technology problem than it is a customer care one. If IT organizations get intimate with the line organizations they serve and focus on keeping those organizations happy by appearing responsive, they will likely have little risk. The more disconnected they are, the greater the risk that line organizations will bypass them and it has never been easier to do so.
In short, while flexible networking, storage and servers may be a good part of what the IT organization has to consider, the only truly powerful defense is making sure line organizations prefer IT over the alternatives. Customer satisfaction just went from important to career critical, and at the core of customer satisfaction is agility.