In PhilosophiÃ¦ Naturalis, Sir Isaac Newton defined inertia as follows:
The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line.
Although Newton was referring to physical objects, the power of inertia affects companies, markets, and relationships in the same manner. Humans are creatures of habit, and change is challenging. When faced with a choice of continuing along the same road or branching off in a new direction, most will choose familiarity.
Inertia in IT Architecture
Consider the impact of inertia on IT architecture: once the solution is in place, it tends to remain there for a very long time. This rule applies to practices, architectures, solutions, and hardware and software. It explains the continued presence of Token Ring, MS-DOS, Mac OS 9, and Palm organizers in so many companies. It also explains the curious devotion IT pros field toward solutions that are backward compatible: Ethernet, Windows, Intel x86 architecture, and so on.
Once, while visiting the data center of a midsize financial institution, I spotted a stack of old IBM PC desktop computers in the corner. The company had purchased a company, which itself had purchased a bank many years ago. The loans from that long ago and far off institution were still serviced by this archaic hardware and software. The company’s IT staff had squirreled away half a dozen replacement computers so they could migrate the application to new old hardware in the event of a failure. If this isn’t inertia, I don’t know what it is.
An external force is required to overcome inertia, and one must desire to initiate a change. New products and solutions must not merely be attractive, it must also be compelling enough to overcome this inertia. In my experience, there are three reasons that companies change direction when it comes to IT architecture:
- A noticeable irrefutable return on investment (ROI)
- A tangible and necessary performance benefit
- A unique and desirable function
Many new technologies show promise in all three areas, including 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), server virtualization, and data deduplication. But these potential benefits are not necessarily compelling in all IT environments.
A company with a substantial investment in Fibre Channel SAN hardware may find that upgrading to 8 Gb Fibre Channel is more compelling than a switch to converged networking and FCoE. Many companies have found it hard to justify the additional cost of data compression or deduplication technology when compared with the decreasing cost of capacity or the benefits of improved utilization through better storage management. The growth of server virtualization has been steady, but the hold-outs indicate that many companies find it hard to justify the technology.
Contrary to our nerd dreams, mere technical superiority does not guarantee the success of a new product or solution. It must be better, faster, and cheaper to achieve widespread success. In short, it must demonstrate a compelling case, or inertia will set in and derail its progress.