IT slips its bridle for the second time

Users are regaining control from vendors and consultants, says Tom Yager

The start of 2007 finds IT vendors at the top of the food chain squirming at being treated like the help. Vendor royalty such as Microsoft, Dell and Intel — along with consultants who have insinuated themselves into becoming IT’s empowered insiders — don’t like it when you hold strategy meetings without inviting them. Besides, it seemed clear to them that continuing to play up to IT’s appetite for convenience, expediency and risk avoidance was a solid basis for their long-term roadmaps.

Imagine their dismay when in 2006 they discovered that IT had jumped the roadmap. Nobody expected IT to alter policy and direction without third parties at the head of the table. Green computing, consolidation, and virtualisation looked like easily co-opted missions, but IT insisted on tackling them its own way, and no two organisations are running the same playbook.

The last time IT slipped its bridle, the cause was lock-in. Vendors tried to answer calls for open, modular, extensible, heterogeneous, interoperable and standards-compliant solutions by tweaking ad copy and forming consortia to create self-serving pseudo-standards. IT didn’t buy vendors’ canned response of “Oh, yes, we have an interoperable in stock” response to demands for real change.

IT wouldn’t be appeased, so vendors were forced to break the glass on the big red button: when all else fails, shove marketing out of the way and deliver some value. Point releases give way to major updates, options become standard, proprietary becomes public, and independent standards bodies are empowered as forces for technological change. Now, first-tier system-makers have discovered again that loyalty is a two-way deal and started taking lessons from hungrier lower-tier competitors. This became reality in 2006 and it will prevail into the coming year.

IT is going green but not buying green packaged as a message. IT is consolidating, but hasn’t accelerated spending to bring in fatter servers, grander OSes and near-sentient storage labelled as bred for consolidation. Consolidation through attrition suits many in IT just fine. Likewise, IT is not doing what’s expected with virtualisation. The plan was that IT would buy new, expensive OSes to get baked-in virtualisation, but IT realised from the jump that would defeat the purpose — which is lowering costs. Instead, virtualisation’s lesson is that most of those new and nifty OS features, the close-to-the-metal features that don’t virtualise, are only occasionally essential. For example, Microsoft may have lowered the boom on Windows 2000, but third-party vendors have not. Being lightweight, Win2K is a favourite virtual guest OS, and everybody already owns it. IT noticed that cloning a Win2K virtual machine image doesn’t trigger phone-home activation.

More than a few shops maintain a limited number of Red Hat or Suse licences for access to support, but deploy stripped-down BSD and free Linux distributions in their virtual servers. RISC Unix servers aren’t being dismantled; why tear down bulletproof, standards-defining platforms that virtualise at native speed?

This year vendors will have to adjust to the fact that convenience, risk aversion and maintaining the status quo are not permanent IT priorities. Last year should remind vendors and consultants that although messaging seems effective when vendors happen to be heading the same way IT is, marketing does not drive IT.

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