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Reading IT's mind

Tech industry watcher Jon Oltsik speaks with four IT managers whose take on technology reflects a very different reality from the one commonly bandied about as conventional wisdom.

Tech Industry
My 9-year-old son has become quite an athlete, but after playing third- and fourth-grade basketball and watching the NBA playoffs, he is now convinced that he is NBA-bound.

I encourage his childhood imagination, but offer the practical advice that for every Michael Jordan there are thousands of other basketball players who just aren't good enough to make the pros.

There's an analogy to the information technology world--not the one that actually exists, but the portrayal of the one said to exist. We read wonderful stories about the IT exploits of companies such as Wal-Mart Stores, Charles Schwab and Federal Express. But these companies inhabit the bleeding edge with IT departments that do things that most firms don't even dream about. This makes for great press but is about as relevant to the IT masses as NBA superstars are to the multitudes of wanna-be pro hoopsters.

I recently met up with four director-level IT operations managers who work for billion-dollar companies. Each of their firms is considered to be on the cusp of technology, and these folks represent the "How does it play in Peoria?" IT crowd that makes up the silent majority of IT consumers who buy the bulk of equipment, software and services.

In many ways, however, they reflect a different reality from the one commonly thought to be the conventional wisdom in the computer industry. To wit: My friends simply don't care about the battle between Linux and Windows. Their shops run on a mix of mainframe, Unix and Windows servers that are anchored by the IBM iSeries (AS/400). Why? It does the job with nary a hiccup. I know of one company that hasn't experienced any unplanned downtime for more than two years. The AS/400 also offers great operational efficiencies and a lot of the add-on management utilities and middleware for Unix and Windows. What's more, AS/400s enable companies to develop a Web front end for applications so that they can be extended to partners and suppliers.

Storage pundits proclaim that storage utilization averages about 30 percent. Vendors use this factoid to sell expensive storage area networks and storage resource management (SRM) tools. My buddies had never even heard of SRM. To them, storage utilization is the responsibility of their system administrators. They couldn't believe it when I told them that typical storage utilization rates are said to hover around 30 percent.

They claim that their average hovers between 80 percent and 90 percent. As one gang member put it: "If my storage utilization was 30 percent, I'd be fired." Another said his company won't even consider a storage area network (SAN). "SANs are overrated," he said. "We don't need one now, and when we do, I'll budget for it."

What about high availability and disaster recovery? The industry would have you believe that these are "gotta haves." Not really. The silent majority uses engineering, technical and operational skills to build 24/7 systems using clustering software and high-end systems where necessary. That said, systems crash. One manager said that Oracle patches led to monthly downtime.

Another referred to Microsoft Exchange as the bane of his existence. As for disaster recovery, these guys rely on tape backup and sound off-site storage procedures. Remote mirroring? One of the participants laughingly stated, "We're not trading equities--we make commodity products. If our systems go down, we go to manual processes and ship when the systems come up."

Industry know-it-alls say that security spending will increase dramatically. Maybe. My friends are definitely struggling with security complexities. The business guys aren't willing to fund security initiatives. The executives responsible for lines of business think that security should be included in the IT budget along with everything else. I heard several statements like "the business guys think that if IT isn't secure, then we aren't doing our jobs. They don't understand the risks, so they won't pay for them." Scary but true.

Finally, remember the promise of supply chain integration? It may work for 800-pound gorillas like Dell Computer and Wal-Mart, but not in middle America.

This is the "How does it play in Peoria?" IT crowd that makes up the silent majority of IT consumers.
My IT friends say that tools like i2 are far too complicated. They have trouble persuading customers to integrate systems; instead they continue to fax orders the way they always have. Supply chain integration happens on an account-by-account basis and depends on the IT skills of each customer. Tell me: How does this process scale for delivering benefits?

It is important to note that my IT compadres don't work for Hillbilly Inc. All are employed by industry-leading global companies. They operate in a risk-averse, cost-conscious manner and have typical IT relationship issues with the businesspeople, but they still deliver superior IT services to their companies.

Although I hope my son reaches his basketball potential, even a proud papa must be realistic about his kid's chances of becoming the next Michael Jordan. It's time that we, too, thought about the technology industry with an equally realistic perspective.

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