Too Much Complexity? IT Manager, Heal Thyself

Technology vendors can only do so much to reduce hardware and software complexity. It's up to users to simplify their IT infrastructures, say top executives from IBM and Cisco Systems.
Technology vendors can take steps to reduce hardware and software complexity, but there's much they can't do, warned IBM senior VP Steve Mills and Cisco Systems senior VP and chief technology officer Charles Giancarlo on Tuesday.

In other words, business-technology managers should heed the adage "patient, heal thyself" rather than relying too much on the doctor.

The two senior VPs, representing IBM's $15 billion annual software business and Cisco's $22 billion switch and router business, offered some advice during a panel presentation at the Gartner Symposium ITxpo, which is being held this week in San Francisco.

During a keynote panel entitled "Conquering Complexity In Software And Networking," Gartner analyst John Pescatore, noting IBM and Cisco's long history of issuing frequent product releases for business customers, asked: "Isn't the IT industry part of the problem?"

"How about it, Steve--do we cap features and function?" Giancarlo responded, turning to his fellow vendor.

"We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't," he responded, to the chuckles of the audience.

Earlier, Mills had noted that maintenance of a complex infrastructure was eating up the IT budget at many companies. His advice, tongue in cheek, was that IT managers should do what he does: "Starve developers.

"Don't give them all the resources they ask for. Put them in a time-box" where they're committed to complete a project by a certain date rather than continuing to work to perfect their creations.

"Given enough time and resources, developers will reinvent everything that's come before," he warned, and in doing so, they'll eat up the IT budget. But he didn't literally mean to withhold food from the coders. On the contrary, he said, feed them, "and they'll hang around forever" working on a project. The advice, delivered tongue in cheek, nevertheless represented one way "to attack the culture that leads to bloat."

Giancarlo said every Cisco customer wants only 10 features in a product, but those 10 features vary from customer to customer. "It's extraordinarily complex to make complex things simple," he said.

Giancarlo and Mills agreed that businesses must strive for an overall architectural approach to technology and simplify their IT environments around it Businesses often have competing groups within them, said Giancarlo, who added that each group thinks its approach to solving a problem is the right one. This leads to the deployment of different systems to solve the same problem, multiplying complexity. "The federal government has got this [problem] in spades," he said.

Businesses must develop new software as components, then reuse them in future projects. Giancarlo said new complexity should be tolerated only where it yields competitive advantage, and older forms of software that have become commoditized need to reflect that by using the simplest and most standardized forms of software available.

"There's no benefit when complexity is noncompetitive. It's a trade-off" that companies need to learn how to make, Giancarlo said.

Mills agreed. "The opportunity is there to make dramatic improvement. It's a governance issue more than a technology issue."