March 23, 2014

“Brownfield” Is A Terrible Antonym for “Greenfield”

The computer industry loves buzzwords. “Greenfield” is a popular way to describe all-new infrastructure built with no regard for legacy compatibility. But what’s the opposite? Lately, I’ve been hearing companies use the term, “brownfield” to describe a solution that is compatible with existing hardware or software. But a quick look at the dictionary (or Wikipedia or Flickr) reveals what an absolutely terrible term that is!

This is an actual brownfield - a demolished Ford factory in Cleveland

This is an actual brownfield – the demolished Ford Casting Plant in Cleveland

Greenfields, Brownfields, and Greyfields

Unlike so many in the computer industry, I do not have a degree in computer science. Rather, I have a Bachelor of Science in Society and Technology Studies, focusing on urban planning. And I got my degree just as the term, “brownfield” was becoming popular. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Many new IT solutions (cloud computing and storage, NoSQL databases) are incompatible with existing systems. This presents an opportunity for companies to dispense with traditional approaches and try radically-new alternatives. For this reason, this sort of system has adopted the term, “greenfield” meaning undeveloped.

But not every system can be started from scratch. In fact, “greenfield” has become something of an insult lobbed at wholly new technology. “Unicorns and rainbows and cloud computing sound great,” they sneer, “but that’s only for greenfield projects. Here in the real world we need compatibility and continuity of existing systems.”

So an alternative term has recently emerged. If greenfield implies “rip and replace”, then brownfield must imply redevelopment, right? But there is a problem.

You see, a “brownfield” is not just an area in need of redevelopment; it is a former industrial area that has been abandoned. The term implies pollution, wreckage, and even toxic waste! In extreme cases, brownfields can be reclassified as “Superfund” needing extensive rehabilitation.

Although corporate IT would be much better served if conventional legacy systems were ripped out and replaced, this is probably not what people mean when they use the term, “brownfield.” Rather, they see the opportunity to redevelop IT with a focus on continuity with existing infrastructure.

In urban planning terms, this sort of reuse is more like a “greyfield“, formerly-viable land in need of investment and updating. Greyfields can be refurbished and renewed, like run-down shopping malls and military bases.

Stephen’s Stance

I don’t actually expect the IT industry to adopt “greyfield” as a term for reuse of existing systems. But I do hope that folks think twice before using the loaded term, “brownfield.” As Inigo Montoya says, “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”