Software // Enterprise Applications
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2/16/2010
10:03 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Global CIO Quick Take: Dell CIO On App Consolidation

Keep cutting until the 'screaming's unbearable'

Dell CIO Robin Johnson says he has cut the number of applications Dell uses from 8,000 to less than 2,800, in about two years.

Having made that big push, what does a CIO do now? How do you know when you're done, when you've hit the right amount of app consolidation? Johnson's strategy: "I don't know that there's an end goal. I think you just drive that continuously until the screaming's unbearable."

(Note: Johnson has a sense of humor. He's kidding. About the screaming.)

Johnson is making a couple points here about app consolidation strategy. One, no one easily gives up their applications. So IT has to push constantly on whether an app truly is unique enough to justify its continued existence, if there's an alternative elsewhere in the infrastructure. It's recognition that there is tension in app consolidation.

Two, Johnson acknowledges that app consolidation is an ongoing struggle, not a one-time project. Having hived off more than 60% of the apps that Dell uses, IT teams have to work to keep apps from creeping back in.

Yet there's also an upside to those sneaky, outside-of-official-IT apps, an upside that Johnson doesn't want to squelch. "Often, the best innovation is there," he says. "So the challenge is how do you get the best innovation, but in a way that you can scale it and support it."

Here's his answer. Dell has what Johnson describes as the "happy path" and the "unhappy path" to an IT project. If a project follows Dell's broad IT standards--around hardware, vendors, software, etc.--it can get on a fast track. "As a project manager, you can spend a lot of money on your development provided you follow the path we want you to follow," Johnson says. "As soon as you want to deviate, it becomes very bureaucratic, and there are a lot of approvals."

Johnson credits the strategy with driving virtualization as part of app consolidation. Today, there's an edict of "virtual first"--every app, new or old, gets virtualized unless there's a good reason not to. And there are valid reasons, as Dell has virtualized about 50% of all its servers, with about 7,000 virtual machines.

What's not to like about a happy path, right? Well, the whole strategy only works if an IT org can execute on that promise--if a CIO really can deliver a fast track. As soon as business units hit deadly delays for approvals and resources, or face standards so narrow they can't get done what they want, they'll be thinking goodbye happy path, hello "shadow IT."

Johnson looks at app consolidation as just one piece of the CIO's mission of "constantly attacking fixed cost," so money can instead be spent on building new applications. Which, by the way, then turn into fixed support costs, which the CIO needs to knock back down. It's what makes being a CIO, he says, "the ultimate 'what have you done for me lately' job."

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO.

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