Gartner released a report last week on 2008 IT spending that spotlights the next big thing: "per-use service-based models." This is a catch-all term that subsumes both cloud computing and SaaS. According to Gartner, "The projected shift to cloud computing, for example, will result in dramatic growth in IT products in some areas and in significant reductions in other areas."
What Gartner elides is that cloud computing represents a fundamental shift in the role of IT: it removes from IT much of its daily work, but, and this is a big but, presents it with a different -- and more important -- set of tasks.
Cloud computing outsources much of the dogsbody plumbing that has been IT's lot in life: provisioning servers, keeping the network up, providing 24/7 infrastructure monitoring. Crucially, it gets IT out of the physical data center business -- no more special purpose space buildout, no more power calculations, A/C maintenance.
As Gartner notes, all this is outsourced to someone like Amazon. For those who are reluctant to trust their infrastructure to a bookseller, HP, IBM, and Sun are all active in this area as well. And let's face it, if you're a CIO for a medium-sized midwestern manufacturer, who's likely to be better at managing IT infrastructure, you or a technology company? In fact, this situation could be worse than I've just described: I recently talked with a financial services IT executive (financial services is generally considered the most technology-capable sector of the US economy), and he complained that his company couldn't hire A-level talent for traditional IT positions. Top talent wants to work for technology companies, according to him.
So, on the one hand: crucial infrastructure that is challenging for IT shops to do well. On the other: technology experts ready to turn a labor- and capital-intensive activity into an outsourced, pay-by-the-hour service. To my mind, it's too logical not to come to pass.
In this estimation, Gartner echoes Nick Carr, whose last book, The Big Switch, predicted the rise of utility computing. Carr, who has long viewed IT with a jaundiced eye, predicted that IT would abandon running their own IT infrastructures, much like early manufacturers quickly stopped running their own electrical generating plants when electricity providers came into being. Carr offers an example of the future by noting what a colleague of his did: snapped together online blogging software, flickr photo hosting, free wiki sites, and even more to create his site. All of this required no capital investment and no IT expertise.
So hats off to Carr for limning the trend, presciently predicting it before Gartner made it a centerpiece of their analysis of the future of IT. I think he (and they) are onto something that will, thankfully, get rid of lots of thankless work for IT organizations.
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