Dave Hitz over at NetApp poses a very interesting question: What is the ten-year trend in information technology that we are currently building to? He supplies these historical examples:
- 1982-1992: A computer on every (business) desk
- 1990s: Networking all those computers
He then goes on to suggest three ten-year trends that we might currently be living through:
- Cloud/Outsourced Computing
- Server Virtualization
- Flash Memory
Although I agree on the importance of these three to enterprise IT, I don’t think they’ll be seen as the megatrends of this decade in hindsight. I suggest that, more than anything, we are witnessing a wholesale shift from information tied to place/device to information mobility. Cloud computing, server virtualization, and even flash memory are all contributors to this massive trend, along with the user-side trends of the post-PDA mobile phone, 3G data, social web services, and connected home.
What Is Mobility?
The meaning of mobility, to me, is expansive. It doesn’t just refer to taking a copy of your data with you, ubiquitous connectivity, or portable devices. Mobility is a new paradigm of computing.
- Your data no longer “sits” in one place – your data lives out there in the network!
- Your applications no longer “live” on this device or that – your applications live out there in the network!
- Your productivity environment no longer requires a particular piece of hardware – you expect to be productive everywhere on every device!
This doesn’t sound strange to the modern Internet user. We have completely accepted the role of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Wikipedia and the rest in our personal lives. Just as they did in the early days of the PC, business people have transitioned these concepts into the professional world – witness Salesforce and LinkedIn! In all cases, we have endorsed the idea that certain types of information want to live in the cloud because it makes them better!
Once you’ve used these services, old-fashioned email, contact management, encyclopedias, maps, and the rest seem incredibly limiting. A GPS system that can’t update its maps seems antiquated, and we want it to have real-time traffic data, too. An iPod that needs to be physically connected to a PC to add music or applications is simply unacceptable. Time- and place-shifting technologies like TiVo To Go, over-the-air podcast downloads, and Slingboxes reset our expectations about availability and choice of entertainment, but they are mere symptoms of our changing perceptions. We want mobility of data, applications, and platforms, and we are getting it.
Consider two truly revolutionary platforms: the iPhone and the netbook. In both cases, we knowingly accept limitations in the name of portability, knowing that the cloud will give us what we can’t hold in our hands. These devices are limited in ways that would seem inconceivable just a few years ago: Apple has locked their platform up tighter than any in history, and netbooks are too small, underpowered, and cheap in all senses of the word. But we love them because they get us where we want to go, which is up and out!
Mobility and Enterprise IT
The concept of mobile data, applications, and devices is just as applicable to enterprise IT infrastructure as it is to personal technology. Some enterprise data must be kept close to the vest, especially where privacy laws and litigation concerns are applicable. But there is certainly a vast pool of corporate data that wants to be out working in the field! Setting this data free is the enterprise equivalent of the mobility megatrend!
Cloud computing is hype. Server virtualization is hype. Flash storage is hype. XaaS is hype. Web 2.0 is hype. But once the cloud of hype passes, we will be left with solid technologies to enable mobility and transform corporate computing. Why should corporate email have to punch through your firewall? Why should the intranet be limited to internal or VPN users? Why can’t customers interact with a (limited/controlled) set of your corporate records? Salesforce showed us that roaming users (sales teams) need greater access than most IT staff were ready to build. What if we applied the same ideas to other data types?
Many companies are already doing this. Microsoft offers a variety of internal/external services for their customers through Live (see Connect, for example). Many companies are using mail and productivity applications in the cloud from Google, MessageOne, and Zimbra. Backup and archiving as a service to mobile users is widespread (see Iron Mountain Connected and Mozy). And more and more corporate PR relies on blogs, twitter, and social networking sites. Corporate security and legal types are worried about data “escaping” from the eggshell of control they exert, but this cat is out of the bag. Enterprise IT will never be the same!
It comes down to a single core question that IT folks ought to have been asking themselves all along: What should be held internally and what should be let loose? We already “outsource” many non-core corporate functions. Sometimes we do this for cost reasons. But the most effective outsourcing decision is when a third party will do a better job, offering levels of expertise or service that an internal group could never realistically reach. We already buy enterprise software to leverage outside development (remember, this was not always the case!), so why not also buy enterprise services? Corporate-grade outsourced email, groupware, sales automation, and the like is not only more robust and less expensive than internal systems, they enable a disconnected, mobile workforce.
Today, I Was Angry
I bought a new album from Amazon, but I forgot to sync my iPhone with my laptop, so it was sitting at home when I wanted to listen to it in the car. Then I couldn’t find a colleague’s phone number because he moved to a new company and my address book didn’t automatically update. And I couldn’t review a presentation because I needed a special account to access a corporate document system behind a firewall.
These little accomplishments would have seemed like miracles just a few years ago: I remember the joy I felt ten years ago when I could read a web page offline on my Palm Pilot using AvantGo; I was amazed when I first fired up 802.11a wireless networking and could work anywhere in the office; I was gleeful to be able to take 5 GB of music with me on the train. But all this is past. Today, I want to access my portable data and work anywhere. We are in the midst of a revolution in the mobility and ubiquity of computing.