Prediction of IT department's death refuted

IT pros respond to Nicholas Carr's new book

IT professionals are mad as hell about Nicholas Carr's new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google, which predicts the demise of the corporate IT department and its replacement by utility computing.

Network World's website has been flooded with comments from IT professionals ever since it published a review of the book.

One anonymous writer, who calls Carr "a talentless hack with an English Lit degree", says "this article proves that Nicholas Carr can still get a book published regardless...of his extreme lack of knowledge of logic, business, economics and information technology".

Another anonymous commenter says Carr is "an author screaming for attention and not someone versed and experienced in IT. He's just a small child crying out for someone to look at him. It's OK, we'll entertain you by at least reacting to your latest ponderings."

The comments are not typical internet rants and raves. They are mostly detailed, well-articulated arguments about why companies will continue to need their own corporate IT departments to secure customer data, provide end-user support, upgrade network infrastructure and deploy custom business applications.

The reader-submitted comments are running 8 to 1 against Carr's premise that IT departments will have little work left to do once business computing moves out of corporate-run datacentres and into utility computing facilities.

"I don't believe you're going to see this large transformation as Carr predicts," says one anonymous commenter. "Companies have invested hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, into infrastructure for their business. They are going to just throw it all away? I highly doubt that... Many companies, like my own, will absolutely never trust their data to a 'utility computing solution' aka Google....Downsizing, yes, IT departments dying off, no I don't really think so."

A reader who identifies himself as Andrew van der Stock says "I've worked for a number of organisations who thought outsourcing IT was the key to success, and they universally failed.

"Our devices and styles of computing will change (see Salesforce.com etcetera), but the need to centrally manage a number of devices that the company owns will not go away."

This isn't the first time Carr has provoked the wrath of IT professionals. In 2003, he published a provocative essay in the Harvard Business Review called "Does IT Matter?" In it, he asserts that IT investments failed to provide companies with a strategic advantage because as soon as one company adopts a new technology, its competitors do the same.

Carr is stirring up the pot again with his new book, which argues that utility computing will replace corporate IT departments much as electricity utilities replaced company-run power plants in the early 1900s. Carr says it is more efficient for companies to buy utility computing services via the internet than it is for them to operate their own datacentres and network infrastructures.

"Interesting idea to be sure, but I'll believe it when I see it," says a writer identified as Jon Allred. "The fact is that a business's IT needs are far more complex than an electricity generator. So much so that the whole idea seems more like a pro-outsourcing political polemic than an honest look at the state of corporate IT infrastructure."

IT professionals say Carr has underestimated the role that datacentres housing customer information will play in retaining corporate IT departments.

"We are seeing a more commodity approach to hardware and services, which can be compared to electrical companies, but as for the security of the firm's lifeblood, data, I believe that companies will want to maintain a firm grasp on that, no matter all the hype otherwise," writes Barry W.

"The single greatest measure of security for data is the physical kind: eg not hooking the information up to a network of nodes, any one of which represents a transfer point and an opportunity for a thief," says an anonymous commenter. He adds that Carr "is living in a dream world of unpatented, unprotected information".

Several IT professionals point out that corporate IT departments are already running more efficient and less costly datacentres thanks to a shift towards virtualisation of servers.

"There is an opportunity over time for corporations to decrease IT staff. But this has more to do with VMware than Google," one anonymous commenter says. "Why did Carr not focus on virtual technology... He missed a big opportunity to get the detail right."

IT professionals also argue that utility computing providers will not be flexible or responsive enough to corporate needs, and so companies will retain their own IT departments.

"Businesses will perceive utility IT solutions as brittle, inflexible and unresponsive," says Milton Smith, who nonetheless admits he finds the utility computing concept "interesting".

An anonymous writer argues "the outsourcing model is what's being practiced right now with large corporations, but very soon they will realise that a poor investment has been made,"

The writer describes "[Service-level agreements] not being met, poor customer service and lack of resources for specialised technology."

Carr also predicts the end of the IT profession as a lucrative career path, except for those who want to work for service providers. Carr says IT professionals are indistinguishable from one company to the next, and that they mostly do maintenance chores rather than application development.

IT professionals find this accusation absurd.

"I completely disagree with the idiotic assessment that IT is dead," says one writer. "In fact, it will evolve into a much bigger part of the future business world. Yes, utility computing will displace many of the current end-user devices, PCs, etcetrera, but it has nothing to do with the data and services offered that business and industry uses."

Carr also says companies will no longer require legions of technical staff, and he envisions a future in which only one person is required to run an entire corporate computing operation.

However, those commenting on Carr's book don't seem worried about their jobs.

"IT matters," argues Tom M. "It is what allows your iPhones and BlackBerries to be able to receive those nightly reports. We are not the day labourers used to make your clothes. We create your electronic world that envelopes you, and we will be around for a long time to come, adding that new gotta-have-feature to your precious new toy."

A handful of readers agree with Carr's rosy predictions for utility computing.

"The author points to a number of factors that will help move computing into the cloud and lessen the relevance of IT," says a reader identified as Tom Clement. "I would add that the emergence of standards-based web services and orchestration engines (eg BPEL) makes it more and more possible for non-IT employees to assemble applications that serve their own needs without having to involve IT."

An anonymous reader adds: "When you converge better and more reliable networking, distributed computing, faster and multi-core CPUs and smarter self-maintaining software and hardware, it means fewer people will be needed. Even if it doesn't come together quite like how [Carr] thinks it will, there will still be a reduction in the IT force needed."

Other readers said the shift to utility computing was more than 20 years away and wouldn't replace internal IT departments altogether.

"As distributed computing and remote applications become more reliable, computing may very well become more of a utility service," says a reader identified as Adam J. "Mind you, this is a long way down the road".

It's unclear whether the controversy will drive sales of Carr's book among IT professionals. Several Network World readers said they wouldn't read The Big Switch because they didn't want Carr to earn any money from his controversial predictions.

"This guy is just trying to get negative attention, and I would not take his book for free, less buy it," said one anonymous commenter.

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