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Enterprise IT's power shift threatens server-huggers

Users get what they need, not what you want

Open ... and Shut It's not that the role of enterprise IT is dying. It's just that it's changing so much that it may soon be virtually unrecognisable from its golden age of installing servers and managing data centres.

As more developers take on the task of building, deploying, and running applications on infrastructure outsourced to Amazon and others, traditional roles of system administration and IT operations will morph considerably or evaporate.

Actually, the problem may be even more pronounced than this, as even the applications that IT used to license and install is now being run by companies like Zendesk, Box and Workday. This deprecation of the value of software as software is a big trend for 2012, as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady highlights, and it's going to accelerate. This enables lines of business to take direct control of their "IT", eliminating the IT middlemen that served enterprises for years.

Not that enterprise software is going away. While most enterprise software is developed by enterprises for their own use, and not for sale, a significant market will continue to exist for software. Or, rather, for software services. I met with Box chief Aaron Levie last week, and he stressed that far from killing enterprise software, what Box and others are doing is to "create the next generation of enterprise software" by merging browser-based applications with mobile delivery, among other things.

Box is trying to improve the enterprise experience by "learning from consumer tools and incorporating this learning into enterprise software."

One of the key ways Box and a new breed of enterprise software company does this is by delivering their software as a cloud-based service, rather than on CDs for an enterprise operations person to install and manage. Levie noted: "If I had known the content management problems that enterprises have, I would never have been able to build Box as it is today, as I would have been too distracted by yesterday's definitions of 'what enterprises need.'"

Like the idea that enterprises would never allow cloud-based hosting of their sensitive content. And yet they are. Box now has eight million users, 100,000 business customers, and 82 per cent of the Fortune 500 using its hosted software. Interestingly, many of these enterprise customers aren't starting with Box as an IT-guided purchasing decision. The users of the software are determining what they want to use, and buying it directly.

That's the new model for enterprise IT, and it's made possible by a shift from in-house infrastructure to cloud-based infrastructure.

We're currently in the midst of a transition to fully outsourced infrastructure, with private clouds and other intermediate steps along the way. But as Cloudscaling co-founder and chief technology officer Randy Bias argues, enterprise clouds start at a distinct disadvantage to Amazon's cloud, and keep falling further behind. He asks four questions that damn enterprise efforts to mimic Amazon:

  • Why isn’t VMware more successful in the public cloud space if [the cloud is] just VMs and VDCs?
  • Why isn’t there a VMware-based competitor at similar scale to AWS? Or even close?
  • There are now 100+ “VMs on demand” competitors, but almost none have the same growth rate as AWS - why not?
  • What do the largest Internet giants (Amazon, Google, Facebook) all have in common from an architectural standpoint and how is that different from a typical enterprise datacenter?

Amazon (and Google, Facebook and other major clouds) are architected very differently from the way any enterprise that I'm familiar shapes its infrastructure. For one thing, Amazon and Google and their ilk homogenise the underlying hardware and software configurations, so that they can scale massively without bothering with a management headache. Enterprises are a morass of different hardware and software configurations through a combination of poor planning, lack of centralised control of assets, mergers and acquisitions, and more.

All of which means enterprise business users and developers are far more likely to find outsourced, cloud-based infrastructure to be more cost-effective and scalable than anything they could hope to create internally. Which is why these enterprises are buying into Amazon at a torrid clip.

Still, this shift to outsourced IT - both in terms of hardware and software - isn't without hiccups along the way. Forrester analyst James Staten points to plenty of angst along the way, as traditional IT operations professionals seek to buy into clouds that keep them front and center, while developers seek to sidestep operations to get applications built.

Nor is this confined to developers. Technology-savvy business executives are increasingly looking to technology to help them solve business problems, and they don't necessarily see enterprise IT as the best way to accomplish this, as Gartner research suggests.

All of which is not to declare the death of enterprise IT. Enstratus' James Urquhart describes a range of different functions enterprise IT and operations will continue to service, even in our cloudy enterprise world.

But these functions are quite distinct from the old world of enterprise IT, and will become ever more so. As the value has shifted away from managing physical and virtual assets to instead focusing on the business value unearthed by data, smart IT personnel are those that are looking for ways to help drive a service-oriented IT. There is plenty of jobs for this new breed of enterprise IT professional. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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