Preserving the Endangered IT Wildlands

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Integration may be a great goal, but it's a bit like losing weight. You want to do it, you know you need to do it -- but you're slightly embarrassed you ever let it get this bad.


Perhaps (we secretly think) with better planning, better architecture, SaaS -- or something -- we could stop worrying about these silly integration issues and focus on how technology can innovate business.


If I may wax a little zen, maybe it's time to embrace integration as a sign of a healthy, thriving IT infrastructure.


I reached this conclusion after reading this CIO Insight Q&A with Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He's promoting his recently published book, "The Future of the Internet--And How to Stop It."


During the interview, Zittrain offers his insights on corporate IT, locked-down iPhones and Facebook, and the move toward SaaS. His perspective is thoughtful, even philosophical -- the kind of big-picture contemplation you can only get from professors and writers who move to the woods to live deliberately.


His point is simple: The open, trusting nature of the Internet and PCs has allowed for generative, creative innovation. The more we buy into locked down and controlled devices, appliances and solutions, the more we risk destroying innovation.


You may think corporate IT has no business worrying about such things, but Zittrain points out that corporate PCs have actually played a huge role in this whole enterprising ecosystem by giving new ideas and technologies a foothold and a fighting chance at achieving the critical mass needed for widespread adoption.


Nevermind that you didn't mean to do so. Stop for a minute with the "shoulds" and really think about it. How many innovations that are standard business fare today started out as IT's own version of Fear Factor? PDAs. Laptops. Smartphones. Salesforce.com. Social networks. And, of course, the Internet itself. Says Zittrain:

"Lots of applications had their proving ground on corporate PCs. It's unfortunate to see that thin edge of the wedge, even though it's rational, lead to a cascade of lockdowns in corporate environments and cybercafes and libraries and schools, and ultimately on home computers, as people say they want security and stability more than they want the uncertainty of not knowing if any given piece of code is out to do harm to their machine or their money or personal data. I would just hate it if it turned out that we'd lost our critical mass."

And this is when I started to rethink integration as an IT "problem." I realize integration isn't a sign of failure on IT's part. It's simply a symptom of an enterprise IT infrastructure that's still growing, innovating and thriving. As long as business users are finding new tools and new solutions that work for them, IT will have integration problems -- but IT will also be supporting a vibrant infrastructure, capable of expanding, accommodating and supporting new technologies, and, by extension, the new functions they support.


When you think about integration and technology in those terms, it seems much more organic, more vivacious -- more human. And at it's core, IT is a human institution.


Glories, shortcomings and failings, the IT infrastructure ultimately reflects our creativity, our indecision, our mistakes and our attempts at correction. And that's a good thing -- because it's a long, long way from the dull, static "IT is dead, technology is a utility" vision of Nicholas Carr.


Unless, of course, we become too wedded to the idea(l)s of security, uniformity and safety.


Zittrain isn't naive enough to suggest you open the network doors and welcome the looting masses in. He understands CIOs have to keep their networks locked, particularly if there's anything sensitive. But he hopes there can be some mixed solution that would allow companies the best of both worlds:

"Some of the solutions I suggest in the book have to do with dual-purpose PCs, with a red zone and a green zone, so you can run the untrusted, goofy software in one zone and it can't reach the other zone, and you can flush it very easily. It's not a permanent solution, but one that recognizes the need to reconcile the experimentalist spirit with the fact that things are now mission-critical."

Of course, these issues have more to do with security than integration. On a more practical, integration-related note, Zittrain warns that we may be entering legally unprotected waters with software services and cloud platforms:

"The minute you are in a service relationship with a vendor, rather than a product relationship, there are additional natural paths of lock-in. .... It's interesting how much these cloud computing application platforms are basically the same thing as these tethered appliances, these physical devices that are updated constantly by their vendors."

I've written in the past about the integration issues -- and solutions -- of SaaS. But Zittrain is looking ahead, to the point where you've become dependent upon these systems to the point you've no longer got a natural barrier between the data and the application using the data. He suggests we could also be facing situations where we can't even extract our own data in a usable format for the purpose of taking our business elsewhere.


Talk about a serious business/integration problem!


Zittrain suggests the solution is to look at legal and technical ways to enforce the protections previously offered by "more endpoint-based platforms":

"I call for portability policies to match the privacy policies at Web sites, so that people have a sense going in that they can extract their data in some reasonable format that lets them go somewhere else. That's not a given on the sites of today."

That's good, practical advice.


But for me, Zittrain's more important warning is about the way we rush to tame the wilds of technology, to sanctify it and standardize so we won't have these tedious integration and security problems.


Certainly, integration and security are worthy goals. But in the process, even corporate IT shouldn't sacrifice the innovation and openness that made the Internet and its offspring so useful to businesses, governments, organizations -- really, everyone -- in the first place.