For decades, info tech companies and their customers have been wrestling with one of the seemingly inescapable facts of the computing era: computing systems are designed to be either simple or flexible; but not both. It’s one of the central dilemmas of enterprise computing.
The solution to this problem has been a long time coming, but we’re now on the cusp of a new era when we’ll provide simplicity and flexibility in a single system. One approach is a concept we call expert integrated systems.
I’ll explain that in a minute, but first I want to make a few points about simplicity and flexibility.
The iPad represents the ultimate in simplicity, right? When you buy an iPad, you get a device that’s easy to navigate, easy to get new applications for, and easy to connect to the Internet. As long as you’re willing to accept the pricing and capabilities that comes along with the iPad, everything’s fine.
The PC industry represents flexibility. Depending on your needs and budget, you can choose among PC makers, operating systems, microprocessors and thousands of software products. The downside is that all of this flexibility introduces complexity, incompatibilities and vulnerabilities that cause headaches for organizations and computer users.
The same tension exists in the realm of data center computing. Today, IT and business leaders can buy so-called computing appliances, which are pre-packaged and pre-configured to perform a relatively narrow set of tasks very well and to be set up relatively quickly. But you’re stuck with what you’ve got. Or CIOs can buy the piece parts necessary for specialized tasks or general computing—servers, networking gear, storage and the like—and put the parts together themselves or hire somebody else to do it for them. This tends to be complex and time consuming.
The solution —expert integrated systems—has three key elements. First, you standardize hardware components so they can be snapped together like Lego blocks. Then you pre-integrate hardware and software based on expertise about which configurations work best for a given computing task. We call those “patterns.”
Then you provide the flexibility to expand and change systems as needs change. The idea is that organizations will use these new systems with minimal modifications at first, making it possible to install and use them quickly. Later, they can expand or change things with a minimum of fuss.
Why does achieving both simplicity and flexibility matter so much? Over time, as corporations add to their computing operations, their new stuff is interspersed with and connected to the old stuff. Gradually, keeping everything working well becomes much more expensive than the cost of buying new hardware and software.
Market research firm IDC estimates that, on average, more than 70% of corporate IT budgets go towards operations and maintenance expenses. And that percentage is rising. It means companies have less money to spend on innovation. So, at its core, this discussion is about money—our customer’s money.
Organizations shouldn’t have to spend so much on routine operations. A commissioned study* conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of IBM shows that integrated systems can cut substantial amounts of time and budget for many common IT projects. For instance, pre-integration can make it possible to install and put to use new computing systems in hours rather than days. By handling routine tasks much more efficiently and effectively, that frees up time and money for companies to innovate—trying out new technologies and new business models.
This next wave of computing, where simplicity and flexibility are put into balance, will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It’s being driven not by huge technology breakthroughs but by the accumulation of knowledge and patient experimentation with new ways of doing things. There’s no fast path or magic formula. It’s all hard work and perseverance. That’s the way we’re going to solve corporate computing’s dilemma.
*Project Deployments: Time & Expense Survey, Forrester Consulting, Dec., 2011.