Whether you prefer the term "utility computing" or "the cloud," the industry is headed in that direction, however slowly, and the transition will have a multifaceted impact on IT in some ways productive, others unpleasant. And it will strike to the heart of the very technology professionals who provide a significant chunk of what is today's enterprise IT.
Nicholas Carr, author of the tech-contentious Harvard Business Review article "IT Doesn't Matter" and, more recently a book "The Big Switch," spoke with Tom Sullivan about how enterprises will transition to a more utility-like model for IT, why a small cadre of companies is gobbling up 20 percent of the world's servers and the unheard of possibilities that creates, how Web 2.0 replicates business fundamentals, as well the human factor in all of this.
There are those who would say that The Big Switch is something of a shift away from your position in "IT Doesn't Matter." Is that true?
Even as far back as my original HBR article " IT Doesn't Matter," one of the basic arguments was that more and more of the IT that companies are investing in and running themselves looks a lot like infrastructure that doesn't give you a competitive advantage. I even made an analogy with a utility that everybody has to use but becomes over time pretty much a shared infrastructure. And so what happens when most of what companies use is indistinguishable for what their competitors use? Doesn't that mean we'll move toward more a shared infrastructure, more of a utility system?
The rise of cloud computing in general reflects the fact that a whole lot of the IT that companies have been investing in is really better run centrally and shared by a bunch of companies than it is maintained individually. Now, having said that, I see it as a logical next step from "IT Doesn't Matter." On the other hand, you could say that if a company is smarter in how it takes advantage of this new technological phenomenon, it might at least get a cost advantage over its competitors. So at that level, you can say there's some tension between the idea that you can't get an advantage from technology and what we're seeing now with cloud computing.
A shift toward IT as a utility will be long-term. It's happening in really small ways, such as Salesforce.com, but in the here-and-now, not a lot is going on. So do you have a timeline for this?
It's a 10- to 15-year period of transition. Particularly if you look at large companies, big enterprise users, that's probably about the right timeframe. They have huge scale in their internal operations, and it's going to take quite some time for the utility infrastructure to get big enough and efficient enough to provide an alternative to big private datacenters. I completely agree that we're in a transition period that's going to take some time. And I'd say at this moment that the hype about cloud computing has gotten a bit ahead of the reality. Still, the uptake of cloud services over the last year has moved faster than I would have expected. So there is a lot going on, but there's still a long way to go.