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17 October 2006

A minimal future

By Andrew Clifford

We can build a future with deep and effective use of IT that is much simpler and cheaper than today's IT. We don't need new technology to get there, but we do need to let go of our view of IT organisations.

My vision of the future has five parts: design, standards, technology, business ownership, and IT organisation.

In my design vision, we stop seeing IT from multiple competing viewpoints -- processes, architecture, software, infrastructure, databases, servers, networks, and so on. We simplify our view of IT around the unifying concept of "system". All the other views still exist, but to make our lives easier we encapsulate them. We force ourselves to make IT simpler.

We establish standards for how systems interact with their environment, such as security, systems management, storage and backup. We establish standards for system-to-system interaction. These are not new standards, but a selection from good practice that already exists.

The standards are implemented in a new class of IT technology. A full system environment that encapsulates everything a system must do. It contains on-line access like a web server and data storage like a database. It simplifies system-to-system connection like an integration broker. It supports the heavy duty batch processing and file transfer that underpin large-scale IT. Vendors compete with different implementations, and managed services, but all within the standards.

Systems only interact with each other using the standards, and never assume that other systems implement the standards in the same way. This allows a rich ecosystem, including applications built on new environments, legacy systems wrapped to meet standards, and new end-user tools, all joined as peers. It breaks down the barriers between enterprise and personal systems, and between internal and external. Working collaboratively with business partners becomes as easy as sharing a spreadsheet with a colleague.

The changes in design and technology transform the business-IT relationship. IT is no longer a complicated, technologically constrained, multi-layered, organisational endeavour. It is a simple set of systems. Meaningful business ownership is possible. Systems start to reflect the responsibilities of their business owners. Interfaces represent real transfers of responsibility, control and meaning. As business grasps control of IT, it sees new opportunities. Forward-looking businesses transform themselves to gain the benefits of deep and effective IT support, without waiting to be lead by the IT department.

The biggest casualty, and the biggest barrier, is the IT organisation. With a simple design approach, standard implementations that mitigate risk, effective business ownership, commoditised environments, who needs a big IT department? Of course there will be some specialist procurement. Some bits will still need expert design and development. Businesses will need more, not fewer, staff with a good grasp of IT -- especially people whose whose knowledge of IT does not start and end with office applications. But we will not need the vast, bureaucratic, power-hungry IT departments that prevail today.

Will this vision come true? We already have enough standards and technology. The design changes are easy. Business ownership will grow naturally. But can your organisation grasp this future? Would you prefer your competitors to lead the way?

Next: The drunken man

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