CIO Folder: Choices, choices, decisions, decisions…

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16 May 2016 | 0

All too often these days we forget one important universal truth about ICT —  it is dirt cheap. Buttons. From commodity email scrubbing services to the latest Nutanix appliance — not to mention supercomputers and data centres in a box or even a SAP or Oracle enterprise solution — compare the costs to just one warm human body on the payroll and you have to acknowledge that tech is a bargain.

Mind you, that is in a general and philosophical sense. Is there really a 1,000% value difference between an iPad and a Fengsheing 10.1” tablet with dual SIM? The specs are almost identical but we certainly have a value perception when it comes to Apple vs. something generic from Shenzhen. Smart phones go from under €50 to well over €660-800, even before you add the Swarovski crystals.

“Many large organisations want audited accounts of potential suppliers of systems or managed services, especially if they are relatively young enterprises, because they want to be sure they will still be around in a couple of years’ time as well as delivering on the SLAs”

It is the fate of all new IT to be superseded, even commoditised, by the next generation. How quickly we went from 386 to 486, megabytes to gigabytes of RAM, single processors to octacore in phones. One key point is that the trusty LAN server or that sturdy laptop did not lose any functionality: it lost ground in the market. The same applications are running just as fast, the screen is just as bright and clear. Maybe a replacement battery might be a good thing but otherwise the question is how much would really be gained by replacing with the latest and as close as I can afford to the greatest?

There is also the inconvenient truth for the hardware vendors that so much of the heavy lifting in apps, consumer or business, is now done at the Internet end that quite often the specs of the desk or portable machine do not make much difference. Although it has to be conceded that the clarity and resolution of today’s screens are great.

The salient point is that consumers, business, institutions and state organisations have always had to invest in ICT in a practical way. What is the best that can be done with this budget? How seriously do we need upgrading? Could we save money by buying now? Will delaying investment have any downside?

There is a constant vision in ICT of the well-planned, well-designed and optimal ‘solution’ to needs. In the real world, only the Googles and IBMs and the very occasional well-funded start-up can do that. For a while. There are a few illusions behind the vison. One is, of course, that there is a single best configuration for almost anything in ICT. The corollary is the notion that owning the best set of kit will grant you automatic market/sector/professional leadership.

The tech, any tech, is actually only ever going to be as good as the people directing it and using it. Big Data crunching demands high performance computing and all of that. Not much use if you have a limited data analytics team of part-time students and a promoted DBA or systems engineer.

Another limiting factor, completely commonplace, is the available connectivity. Netflix is great but not on a flaky 1-2mbps connection. Superfast trading systems need near-zero network latency or you will be beaten to the punch. In the real rural world, that clever idea you have for an online business might not be feasible if you are in ADSL land just a 100 metres or less from the last fibre of your local village MAN.

Strip away the glamour of technological progress, the wraparound screens and the yottaFLOPS and the artificial intelligence in household robots. The everyday practical applications of ICT, especially in business, have always been a question of making your choices, taking your chances, hoping it works out and adjusting/patching/repairing when it does not quite do so.

Exactly the same applies to choosing and signing up to managed ICT services, from Salesforce or email (and we should not forget MS Office 365) to systems management to cloud services. You can eliminate some perennial headaches with a managed print service for less than half a dozen devices. You can also outsource the entire ICT systems and function set of a national bank.

Which is about where it all gets trickier. An SME can take on a managed print service from a reputable company with minimal knowledge of ICT. Savvy business sense — and a couple of phone calls, since we are Irish — will probably take you closer to a satisfactory solution than any tech expertise.

It is in choosing the technology as well as the vendor or service provider that expert judgement comes into play in a big way. That is the CIO’s job. ‘Make your choices and take your chances’ is no longer good enough. The CIO, by definition, is in a larger organisation with strong C-suite peers and formal and careful procurement and partnering procedures. It goes way beyond budgets. Many large organisations want audited accounts of potential suppliers of systems or managed services, especially if they are relatively young enterprises, because they want to be sure they will still be around in a couple of years’ time as well as delivering on the SLAs.

The best technology or technical solution to the organisation’s needs has to be matched with business considerations like financial stability. Many multinationals and government agencies are firmly pursuing a green agenda of sustainability. Naturally, they insist that their business partners are at least not offending in that regard.

So organisational ICT decisions are only partly technical. The interview marking sheet for a potential technology/vendor/service provider might allocate any % for the technical criteria from say 30% to a maximum of perhaps 60-70%. That is guessing, of course, since the processes are unlikely to be as simple as a job interview and there will always be ‘No-Nos’ to disqualify the applicant altogether. “We would be the first to employ this technology?!” “It’s a three [suggest number here] person company?! No way.

Even on the technology side there is room for policy and even ideology. A sizeable number of organisations have embraced open source software, for example. This is undoubtedly A Good Thing and there are applications and areas of ICT where that will give access to the best solutions currently available. On the other hand, if it rules out branded and proprietary technology you could be missing out in a significant way. Some of us are fans of OpenOffice and Mozilla, for instance. But we have to concede that for some organisations these might not be the best or most appropriate choices.

The purpose of all of this is to introduce some realistic tones of grey into that rosy vision of ICT, purveyed by the marketing and enjoyed by the techie fan base. There is no perfect or even definitive ICT solution to anything that an organisation or even a consumer or a household needs or wants. There are only solution sets that work. Some of them, maybe most of them, actually work very well indeed and the ‘improvement’ visions are just a little idealistic.

That is also today’s context in which Hybrid ICT is rapidly becoming the normal, as per our main features. We put or pull ICT elements together as we need or can afford or aspire to. The point is that we now expect them to work together in a joined up way. The consumer market would walk away from an email or messaging or certainly a social networking app that required special kit. It is all Internet, it should all just work.

That is the future of business ICT. Mash-up is a term that has faded but it is actually a good one for our new approach and style. We are in a world of SDx, Software-Defined Everything/Anything. We should be able to pick what we like from the menu and take for granted that it will all work together. Behind the façade, the user front end, that is where the smart and adaptive software should ensure just that.

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