The Groves of On-Demand

As the academic year got under way in September, I noted the growing momentum of on-demand alternatives to on-premise IT at major universities. A more recent story now looks at several questions about that trend that have clear parallels in the workplace:

  • Does it make financial sense to keep spending resources on aging
    proprietary software when it’s available on the Web?
  • Do colleges’
    services still offer advantages over those reflexively preferred by
  • In offloading a primary function of the campus
    information technology infrastructure, what role would remain for
    administrators who previously oversaw e-mail services?

No, it does not make sense to throw more money at old software now, when you can clearly see that the situation several years from now will be just like today’s — only more so. The relative costs of centralized computing (trending down) and always-on connectivity (ditto) aren’t a swinging pendulum: they’re a tectonic shift.

No, in-house services designed and developed over the last few decades almost certainly do not offer key advantages over the services that students already know how to use when they arrive, especially if we define advantages from the viewpoint of the user rather than the technologist. The same is true for new employees entering the enterprise: the company should gain maximum benefit from skills that a new hire already has.

Administrators who previously oversaw e-mail services should not be mourning the loss of an opportunity to polish utterly undifferentiated skills. As Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy has famously said of commodity markets, "the only thing you can add to a banana is a
bruise"; in one version of that remark, he then added, "the longer you have that banana in your possession,
the more likely you are to bruise it, and certainly the more expensive
that banana is going to become
." Owning systems that don’t do anything special is a more expensive way to do something no better than other options. Administrators should be adding real value to commodity platforms — whether in the groves of academe, or on the battlefields of commerce.

November 27, 2007