Tech Industry

Perspective: Sidestepping the new IT crisis

Internet veteran Marc Andreessen says that after the frenzy and hype of the bubble, the information technology world faces a new, uncertain future that requires it to reinvent itself--or suffer the consequences of benign neglect.

What is the most thankless, cumbersome function faced by Fortune 2000 companies? How about the one where your work only gets noticed when things break, where you're viewed as a major source of expenses, and your workload has tripled in the past year. Such is the state of information technology today.

Welcome to the new IT crisis.

That crisis is hitting enterprises' bottom lines hard. The average big company now spends 7 percent to 8 percent of its revenue on information technology, with nearly 70 percent of the budget going toward the management of data centers. The combined effect of companies racing to become e-businesses, dealing with the Y2K re-engineering buildups, and pushing to reach Web-based architectures has left IT gasping to keep up.

After spending the past decade helping everyone else inside the company hop about the technology bandwagon, it is time for IT to jump on as well. More specifically, IT needs a reinvention.

Years ago, the telephone system was a completely manual operation. Operators connected calls by hand, service was poor, and the consistency of the system was questionable at best. As more and more people starting making phone calls, the telephone systems began to break down. Calls were dropped, and lines were busy. Wrong connections were made. The phone company was forced to embrace technology and create an automated system.

Today, we take the dial tone we hear when picking up the phone for granted.

If you peer into the data center of a Fortune 500 today, there are striking similarities. Servers and applications are glued together using piece-parts, bailing wire and chewing gum. Armies of systems administrators manually do their voodoo to keep the applications they support up and running.

With today's Web applications requiring dozens, and in some cases hundreds, of servers to run, IT just can't keep up. The solution is going to be found in automation and utility computing to make IT as easy to use and run--and as hands-off--as the phone system.

The benefits of embracing this fundamental shift in how IT delivers its services will be astounding.
But getting IT to run a new way isn't going to happen overnight. IT departments can't simply uproot everything they have in place, telling their customers they will be back online in six months. They are not going to instantaneously implement technologies and start running like utilities, and people aren't going to be replaced by robots. Frankly, it will be as tough as it was to get the financial department or sales to embrace ERP (enterprise resource planning) or SFA (sales-force automation). But if you were to ask sales today if they would want to go back to manually forecasting their pipeline, contacts and quotas--they would say no way. The automation of sales and finance is here to stay.

And IT must start taking steps forward, if it wants to be an enabler of growth, rather than a hindrance to it, once business starts to boom again. Business units are demanding a higher level of service from IT, and CIOs are taking a hard look at how they run their operations, spend their money and plan for tomorrow.

The benefits of embracing this fundamental shift in how IT delivers its services will be astounding. Business units' requests for a new service or change to a service will be turned around in a day rather than a week or a month.

The frenzy and hype of the bubble is gone, and people can step back and look at what works, and actually plan proactively for future growth, rather than being dragged along for the ride.
The security of a company's IT systems will improve tenfold by enabling software patches to be implemented in minutes around the world. When marketing has a major product launch they tap into shared extra resources, saving millions because they don't have to buy extra hardware and software to handle a once-a-year onslaught of traffic.

And this is the time to do it. The frenzy and hype of the bubble is gone, and people can step back and look at what works, and actually plan proactively for future growth, rather than being dragged along for the ride. While a lot of IT people are risk-averse these days, this is one shift they can't afford to ignore. Those that don't take action today, when they have the luxury of taking the time to do it right, will find themselves unable to keep up with their competition when the economy starts to grow again.

Because next time around, customers won't be so understanding about downtime, or about system failures. They've come to expect a higher standard of service, and only those that provide it will prosper in the next go-around.