Column: The Net Is Mission-Critical, We Aren't Ready

Even with all the hype and talk about the importance of the Net -- in its guises of the Internet, E-mail, intranets, E-commerce and extranets -- it has still moved more quickly to mission-critical status than I think anyone has realized in corporate IT.

In a study last year, International Data Corp. (IDC) discovered that U.S. IT managers considered 40 percent of their Windows NT client/server applications mission-critical. In a more recent study, IDC discovered that the same community gave E-mail 4.5 points on a 5-point scale, where 5 was "extremely critical to business activities." Extranets were rated 4.2. Five years ago, applications such as those wouldn't be seen as something that could shut down factory floors or darken office buildings if they went down.

I don't think people are calling activities mission-critical that aren't -- this isn't a overstated-assessment problem like grade inflation. These applications are mission-critical. IT has become the heart of most business processes, and the Net is fast becoming the clearest window to them. That's a bit scary.

The reason isn't because the Net is a stateless medium or that hackers can worm through firewalls or that network response times can be capricious. The reason is that people don't know how to make the transition. Asking them to do so is a little like asking a Cobol programmer to do real-time programming. The spirit is willing, but the skills, experience and tricks of the trade are weak.

That's the conclusion reached by attendees at a workshop at IDC's Internet Executive Forum this fall. The consensus was that most Web sites are developed by teams that are more business- and speed-driven than traditional IT folks but that the IT folks have the process-driven skills needed to make applications bulletproof. Because most mission-critical Web applications need access to back-end systems, IT folks are critical in delivering the full application.

There are other problems dealing with the Net's rise to mission-critical status. Some of these relate to the time and energy it takes to integrate with back-end systems, some to the lack of tools from vendors and some to the lack of guidelines on how to be successful. There just haven't been enough case studies and business practices to meld into a common body of knowledge.

But our experts felt that the true gating factors were culture and training. Plumbing issues are important, but they aren't the main issue as we start to run our businesses from the Net.

So you're going to see the following:

-- A booming business in consulting and outsourcing of Net applications. Most vendors already have branded products in mission-critical services.

-- Some well-publicized project failures -- where development expectations weren't met.

-- Personnel raids on the companies that learn how to do it right.

-- Vendors starting to sell some point products around high-availability Web servers and networks along with gold-plated service contracts.

At the same time, many of those collaborative applications (40 percent of today's Internet server loads) and even some of the publishing applications (30 percent) running in companies today will toggle over into mission-critical. Then the fun will begin.

Say, does anybody know where the documentation is on that human resources intranet? They just changed the 401(k) rules and we have to run payroll.

(Gantz is a senior vice president at International Data Corp., a sister company to Computerworld in Framingham, Massachusetts. His E-mail address is jgantz@idcresearch.com.)

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