Waves of change in IT: what’s behind the Cloud?

Riding the waves

For his strategic planning and innovation charter, a CIO has to look 5 years ahead. Crushed between uncertain future demand of the own organization and the need for (far reaching) decisions today, a strategic outlook on IT may help. Although this is not an insurance policy, at least it gives the CIO the much needed option to be pro-active. But what predictions to follow?

I remember the engagement of James Martin and his company, of which I was part at that time, who in the mid eighties started the 2020-initiative. A bold attempt to look 35 years ahead on the impact of IT for various industries. In general it predicted an information centered society as we already have today. The focus was on the "what" and not the "how". For instance, global location independent access to corporate data was predicted. But there was no notion of things like an iPad to make that possible.

I think a 30+ outlook would be nice to have for a CIO but will not really help. Technology developments are much quicker and lifecycles are much shorter. We are probably all familiar with the "waves of change" concept. Look both back and ahead in time, position yourselves today and start preparing riding the next wave.

Of course one can check out Gartner's latest "Hype-cycle of emerging IT technologies". In fact you can compile a wave-chart for many IT-related topics. For the CIO the "must have" one is on application strategies, since investment decisions in applications are large and far reaching. I haven't seen a good wave chart lately so I will share my thoughts on this one.

Looking back in time we have roughly seen these application trends:

  • Monolithic mainframe systems
  • Distributed systems
  • Packaged solutions
  • SaaS based solutions
  • Cloud based computing

None of the above have taken over completely, none of the above has died. Although Cloud based will certainly grow over the years, again I don't see this as the ultimate solution. Is there already a next trend emerging on the horizon? I think yes but it will be a non-technology driven one. Underlying all the trends is the continuous evolving componentization of applications. From the early days of transaction monitors, via Component Based Development (CBD) to the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and now the Cloud driven WebDav connectivity. Many fathers but all driven by the desire for technical interoperability.

The original dream of ERP was to have standard business function which could be used virtually unchanged by all. But we ended up with cumbersome and costly customization, since we found that our business function were "unique". Templates, starter kits and industry models have improved this and will evolve further. But still we are afraid to standardize our business processes. The resulting need to think about master data management at least helps to standardize on business objects. Another dream was Business Process Outsourcing: we have another one to run the show and deal with all problems, not only the IT ones. Again reality proved that this only works in highly standardized environments.

Today there are no technical limitations, neither in development or run-time, to connect old and new, build or bought. The Cloud is the final frontier to prove this. We have automated what we could automate. We have moved from data to information. We have replaced propriety with open standards. So now we finally will be able to reach a next level: functional interoperability. We need functional business capabilities, with standard open interfaces. White boxed if it is commodity, black boxed if it is unique.

Think of the analogy with shipping goods; 95% of worlds good traffic is by container. A few sizes from 10 to 40 Foot, open or closed, doors or bulk but all with the same mounts that make them usable in ships, cranes and trucks. The content can be commodity goods or on of kind machinery. These containers are provided by somebody, maintained by another, shipped by a third and used by many others. As a customer this is a given infrastructure with a simple pay-per-use model.

Back to IT: where our containers originate from is not relevant, who maintain them and who operate them neither. As long as they are secure, show a reliable outcome and have an acceptable price. Yes, this means that a cloud based business function, even offered by you competitor, may be a better solution than your own in house variant. Yes, the ERP guys will hate it because it will drive you away from single sourced supplier relationships. Yes, solution companies will not be happy since multi year commitments are not attractive. My answer: So what! It's about the cost and output of business transaction, not about technology and ownership. And the few things that are really unique to you? Well just fill that container and drive the truck yourselves.

Thus with the above in mind I predict the next application trend to be: Function based computing. And for the CIO: it's not there tomorrow but start thinking about it today.


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