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I recently had the chance to moderate a panel discussion in Indianapolis among Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and VMware. While there's nothing wrong with spending a day in Indianapolis, and the vendor list is solid, the reason I went was to hear from the audience. The attendees were IT pros from small and midsize businesses, local governments, healthcare providers, and primary, secondary, and higher schools. In many ways, these IT organizations have some unique challenges, but because we tend to focus on large enterprises or generically on SMBs, their concerns sometimes get short shrift in the press.
In fact, much of the discussion of data center architectures and cloud computing tends to miss the mark for this audience. For example, Cisco talked about its ability to support north of 380 GB of RAM on its blades, while Dell mentioned that its latest server could support 1 TB of RAM. Pretty good stuff, but no one in the room with the exception of a healthcare provider saw the need to push past 128 GB. I asked the hardware vendors on the panel which features they see as critical for this market segment and got back mostly a discussion of power efficiency and green computing. Interestingly, not a person in the room actually sees a power bill and not one has an incentive in any way to reduce power consumption. In some cases, power is paid for as part of their lease. Of course, these IT pros want to be good stewards of the planet, but they really can't justify spending their budgets on it.
On the software side, discussions of Azure- and VMware-based clouds also weren't quite what this audience wanted to hear about, though they certainly were curious. For them, cloud computing is much more likely to mean very selective adoption of software as a service, especially products developed specifically for their markets. The notion of moving workloads into and out of clouds--or moving them at all--is typically not what these attendees are thinking about. Server consolidation has been very successful for them, reducing pressure on their data center floor space and their overall hardware spending. One thing they're looking for is similar savings in their next move, which could call for resource consolidation from remote offices, for example.
While these IT managers aren't immune to budget pressures, however, the impression I got was that they aren't highly motivated to solve problems that had already been solved. So the notion of moving, say, e-mail from its internally supported platform to a SaaS environment probably calls for more disruption than they're looking to incur--and not just for IT. The managers I talked with are very concerned about user training and the fact that they have no resources to retrain their users on new systems. There's a lot of pragmatic loyalty to the vendors they're already selected, and when these IT managers consider moving to new systems, the payoff had better be substantial and immediately apparent.
As is almost always the case with small IT teams, philosophy gives way to pragmatism when considering any new IT project. One manager for a small private college told me that he'd made sizable upgrades to the RAM across his servers; the result was better performance for a number of applications and better support for virtualization, and that was going to be about the extent of his IT-initiated projects for the year. Those were pretty good outcomes for the investment he made.
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