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Art Wittmann
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Practical Analysis: Change Starts At The Top

Most IT execs aren't ready to make the organizational changes needed to capitalize on virtualization.

I recently talked to an IT pro in health care who lamented that her organization had gone about as far with virtualization as it could, which wasn't very far at all. As with many organizations, virtualization entered hers from the bottom up. Developers and testers began using it for in-house applications, and eventually certain IT functions were consolidated on virtualized systems. However, she saw no path to achieving the highly dynamic virtualized data center that most of us envision as the endgame. As we talked through the organizational changes that have to occur, she frowned and asked rhetorically, "Did I mention that I work in health care?"

Our data shows that, almost universally, virtualization is seen as technology that mainly lowers costs and eventually changes operational dynamics. It's normal that technology enters organizations from the bottom, but organizational changes needed to fully realize the benefits of technology must come from the top. Let's face it, entrenched server, networking, and storage teams aren't going to suddenly integrate themselves, giving up familiar tools and practices--and possibly their raison d'être--ultimately recommending that two-thirds of them are now expendable. That's the very hard work of senior management.

But let's be clear: When one talks blithely about changing the 80/20 maintenance-to-innovation ratio in IT, this is what we're talking about: highly systemic changes that will cause most conservative IT managers ulcers, back pain, and insomnia. Simply sticking a hypervisor under all of your operating systems and applications doesn't create the kind of systemic change that redefines IT. That comes when you have the guts to realize that all the technological pieces are in place to either change the function of or do away with the majority of your operating personnel. It's the sort of stuff that sounds great in a PowerPoint but is excruciatingly hard in real life.

It's not that it can't be done. Manufacturing is a rough example. It's become more automated over the past 30 years, resulting in fewer workers doing fewer repetitive tasks with better results. But that didn't happen overnight and not without a good bit of engineering. In health care, you've got applications that run from mainframes down to an array of turnkey systems, none of which want to be virtualized and some of which may be regulated by various government agencies. A specialty oncology app here, another for pediatrics there, add in a storage team whose main goal is the safety and privacy of patient data, and you can begin to imagine the tectonic forces required to change IT systems that are now some 50 years in the making.

The virtues of virtualization or any other disruptive technology must be understood by management, whose job is to then set a clear path for the organization to reap the full benefits. Consolidating systems and even data centers as a means to save money is the right thing to do now, but if full-on cloud computing seems like something that's a good decade away for your organization, don't worry about it. You're not alone.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. Write to him at [email protected].

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