Today's IT spending figures reveal much maintenance work. Has innovation stalled because IT is playing catch up after a long winter of spending freezes and cuts?
"Our six year old servers are so out of date that you even can't run hypervisors on them. Now you want me to spin up private cloud?" As I was going over the latest InformationWeek Reports research on IT spending, I was amazed to find that the top categories for project spending are largely for what you'd think of as the yesteryears of IT basics: storage, network, and server updates. Yes, the long winter of spending freezes and cuts seems to be over (see our forthcoming report for the details), yet, the spending priorities for IT aren't matching the bluster that I'm hearing elsewhere about new, innovative IT projects. What gives?
I shared my thoughts with Art Wittmann, director of InformationWeek Reports, and he replied, "I wonder to what degree this reflects that many IT teams are simply overtasked and underfunded?" It's a good point. Many IT operations have been so starved for cash that they've had to do the moral equivalent of eating seed corn so that their maintenance and operations didn't starve to death. Now that budgets have thawed somewhat, it's time to replenish that seed corn. It makes sense at some level.
We all know of operations that are still running on a four-year capital replacement lifecycle. But we also all know of operations that are still running on six- or even eight-year-old servers, load balancers, switches, firewalls, you name it. And these aren't necessarily secondary or backup systems, these are the primary systems that an organization is relying on for business-critical functions. I don't care what type of cool innovation you're running, goes the thinking, if I'm on an end-of-life platform and something bad happens, the business is screwed and I'm going to be held responsible.
From a human capital standpoint, most IT project and task queues are still longer than customers would like for them to be. At my organization, for example, the work order queue backlog is about a month of total ticket volume. At another organization that I know of, the IT project queue is at least 24 months long. As with any responsible IT organization, these projects and work orders are triaged and prioritized so that urgent and time-sensitive matters percolate to the top, but we all know that there are items that are merely "important" that aren't getting done.
Want external validation that IT is struggling for human capital? ISACA's Governance of Enterprise IT (GEIT) 2012 Survey shows that among almost 4,000 IT professionals, more than half cited "not enough IT staff" as something that caused the enterprise a problem in the last year. Point is, with work backlogs with queues like this, you will definitely get to the items that you know are critical, but you don't know what you don't know: There might be items in the queue that seem like they're mundane, but in reality, once you start down the path, will be transformative or at least highly important.
If you'll forgive the turn of phrase, putting "pie in the sky" projects like cloud computing on project dockets that are this big seems frivolous at best, and even irresponsible at worst.
I can't say that I don't relate, because I do, but IT's role isn't just about survival. Persian poet Moslih Saadi wrote, "If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft, and from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left, sell one, and with the dole, buy hyacinths to feed thy soul."
In the enterprise IT context, we need to remember that while security and reliability (otherwise known as operational "safety") are important, the larger reason why we even HAVE this storage, network, and server infrastructure is because the organization uses it as a platform for innovation.
There's got to be middle ground between a bunker mentality, where it's all about maintenance and operational upgrades, and a willy-nilly "spend everything on innovation" mentality. I tend to think that a high-functioning IT organization should be thinking very carefully about how to direct that infrastructure-update money in a way that satisfies BOTH maintenance and operations--as well as innovation.
To wit, I think if you're not thinking cloud for your infrastructure, you may regret it a few years down the line, much like some who invested in on-premises CRM may have regretted it when they saw their competitors using Salesforce.com's software-as-a-service. I'm not saying replace ALL of your infrastructure with cloud, but I think it's a mistake not to put a pretty high priority on, at least, sticking a toe in the water and identifying SOME systems to put on cloud infrastructure. If your staff balks at the DIY nature of open source clouds, your old standby vendors will come through for you with what Wittmann calls "cloud for the rest of us." But, for Pete's sake, do SOMETHING modern when it comes to infrastructure!
Am I wrong? It's all very well to say "find a balance," but how do you find it? I'm interested in knowing where YOUR organization has landed, and why. Let me know your story, and I may feature you in our upcoming report. Does your shop focus on survival, or is there something more?
Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @_jfeldman.
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