Our Finance Director said I should take a look at a new blog post by Andrew McAfee, in which he explores the topic of IT-as-Electricity and the dangerous messaging therein propagated by cloud computing providers claiming to make “IT” as pervasive and ubiquitous as electricity. I’m really glad he did, as it is an interesting topic.
McAfee’s basic argument is that it is dangerous and naïve to think of IT as electricity because it breeds a perception that IT ‘just happens’, much like the experience we have when we plug our toaster into the wall and pop in a slice of bread. He is right on point. The danger of this thinking, he ascribes, is that commodities or utilities don’t warrant a second thought from business people and that thinking can hurt any organization. If I can add to Andrew’s analysis, I would argue that IT doesn’t ‘just happen’ because IT isn’t about cool web applications that can be procured and deployed with a few mouse clicks. It’s a great vision and a very seductive idea, but it simply isn’t practical. This is bad news perhaps for the one-trick pony SaaS or PaaS folks out there, but it is a dose of reality that I think is long overdue.
IT, in the corporate sense, is about the automation and innovation that happens AFTER a business idea or even an entire venture is conceived (it might be immediately after, but it is still logically sequential). From my perspective, IT is about making a good business better, a small business facilitating something bigger, a new idea take form, or improving a struggling one. IT is about improving business process, the zenith being the point at which you cross over from simply automating to improve to actually innovating (McAfee’s Harvard Business article on this subject is worth the read). In my opinion, this is a process that involves every other C-Level exec as much as it involves the CIO. And if what we are now telling the world is that IT is just like electricity and you can ‘set it and forget it’, it is a very slippery slope and a dangerous one for a business of any size.
This may come as a bit of surprise coming from us since we we’ve been on cloud computing-techno-economic-paradigm-shift bus since it left the station many miles ago. So here is the connection to the relevance of the Electricity analogy: It’s not about IT-as-Electricity, it’s about Computing-as-Electricity.
There is a huge difference in this message. Computing is not IT. ‘Computing’ is one aspect of the whole, and this is what I think is missing in the world of cloud computing. When you talk about electricity the demarcation point is always the plug on your wall. What happens after that is the creative genius that makes environments, companies or even a household what they are – a unique place marked by the creativeness, inventiveness an ingenuity of the people and processes that exist in it. It could be argued that your toaster and the bread you put in it is to electricity what IT is to computing.
Computing is, and should be, the only commodity for consideration. Computing should be the thing we no longer think about in our decision set as outlined by McAfee. As a CEO, I shouldn’t care (notwithstanding political or other peripheral influences) what brand of hardware produces my computing power, where it ultimately came from, whether it was produced by a blade or a rack mounted unit, what switch sent the packet, what external storage array holds the information or whether that storage array uses iSCSI or FC drives. What I care about is that what I use supports my ability to automate my business processes and innovate in areas of core competency. And most importantly, I care that when I need to rely on it, it doesn’t let me down. Just like when I get home at night I expect the lights to come on when I hit the switch so that I can see what’s going on and then focus on my primary objective. I don’t care, nor should I, about the wiring that delivered the circuit from the breaker to my house or from the power plant to my street. Nor do I care whether that current was produced by a Hydro, Nuclear or Diesel generation plant. I’m sure it’s a complex process involving a lot of really interesting things, but when I get home at night my primary objective is seeing my wife and daughter, much the same way the CEO only wants to think about his/her business operation when they get into the board room or fires up some line of business software application.
Here are some questions to think about: If computing is to follow the commodity path of electricity, achieving a similar level of ubiquity and pervasiveness, must it then have a single unit of measurement that transcends politics, production, language and proprietary invention? What if there were “kinds of electricity”? How pervasive would it be then? What if electricity was sold by the flavor or by some cooked up combination of things? How would we know what we were buying or that what we were buying could be compared universally?
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