The IT department is dead, author argues

New Nicholas Carr book predicts utility computing will replace internal IT shops

The IT department is dead, and it is a shift to utility computing that will kill this corporate career path. So predicts Nicholas Carr in his new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google.

Carr is best known for a provocative Harvard Business Review article entitled "Does IT Matter?" Published in 2003, the article asserted that IT investments didn't provide companies with strategic advantages because when one company adopted a new technology, its competitors did the same.

The Harvard Business Review article made Carr the sworn enemy of hardware and software vendors including Microsoft, Intel and HP, as well as of CIOs and other IT professionals.

With his new book, Carr is likely to engender even more wrath among CIOs and other IT pros.

"In the long run, the IT department is unlikely to survive, at least not in its familiar form," Carr writes. "It will have little left to do once the bulk of business computing shifts out of private data centers and into the cloud. Business units and even individual employees will be able to control the processing of information directly, without the need for legions of technical people."

Carr's rationale is that utility computing companies will replace corporate IT departments much as electric utilities replaced company-run power plants in the early 1900s.

Carr explains that factory owners originally operated their own power plants. But as electric utilities became more reliable and offered better economies of scale, companies stopped running their own electric generators and instead outsourced that critical function to electric utilities.

Carr predicts that the same shift will happen with utility computing. He admits that utility computing companies need to make improvements in security, reliability and efficiency. But he argues that the Internet, combined with computer hardware and software that has become commoditized, will enable the utility computing model to replace today's client/server model.

"It has always been understood that, in theory, computing power, like electric power, could be provided over a grid from large-scale utilities -- and that such centralized dynamos would be able to operate much more efficiently and flexibly than scattered, private data centers," Carr writes.

Carr cites several drivers for the move to utility computing. One is that computers, storage systems, networking gear and most widely used applications have become commodities.

He says even IT professionals are indistinguishable from one company to the next. "Most perform routine maintenance chores -- exactly the same tasks that their counterparts in other companies carry out," he says.

Carr points out that most data centers have excess capacity, with utilization ranging from 25% to 50%. Another driver to utility computing is the huge amount of electricity consumed by data centers, which can use 100 times more energy than other commercial office buildings.

"The replication of tens of thousands of independent data centers, all using similar hardware, running similar software, and employing similar kinds of workers, has imposed severe economic penalties on the economy," he writes. "It has led to the overbuilding of IT assets in every sector of the economy, dampening the productivity gains that can spring from computer automation."

Carr embraces Google as the leader in utility computing. He says Google runs the largest and most sophisticated data centers on the planet, and is using them to provide services such as Google Apps that compete directly with traditional client/server software from vendors such as Microsoft.

"If companies can rely on central stations like Google's to fulfill all or most of their computing requirements, they'll be able to slash the money they spend on their own hardware and software -- and all the dollars saved are ones that would have gone into the coffers of Microsoft and the other tech giants," Carr says.

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