4 min read

Down To Business: Simplify Your Software--Though It Ain't Easy

The problem is part inertia, part the lack of confidence in alternative suppliers and products.
Keep it simple, stupid. it's the rallying cry of CIOs run ragged managing applications and other systems that are too numerous and complex. Their challenge: uprooting platforms entangled in myriad business processes and making sure their go-to vendors are credible long-term partners.

Former Chase CIO Denis O'Leary says it must be the No. 1 priority of business technology organizations--cleaning up "the accumulated complexity from years of building and acquiring products and platforms that have now become the equivalent of corporate cholesterol." Even Microsoft's CIO, Stuart Scott, having inherited the supposed simplicity of managing a monolithic, Microsoft-centric software architecture, said at the InformationWeek 500 Conference last week that his organization has retired a thousand applications over the past few years and aims to retire hundreds more.

But moving to a leaner software diet is easier said than done. Looking to cut costs and make e-mail and directory upgrades and modifications easier, one CIO says he proposed to his board a plan to dislodge Microsoft in favor of a cheaper and easier-to-manage Google service. The response? Too risky. Microsoft, for all the grousing about its bloatware, is just too entrenched in most enterprises. And its software works. The CIO says he plans to push back, though he isn't optimistic his board will come around. Clearly, rooting out the application plumbing isn't just a technical consideration.

The problem is part inertia, part the lack of confidence in alternatives. If you're a Microsoft or SAP or Oracle shop, you've invested years and many millions of dollars deploying and customizing those platforms. Ripping them out and replacing them usually isn't practical, even as you dread sinking more resources into the next upgrade or round of patches.

There are plenty of "simple" platform alternatives, but do they cut it? A number of Office wannabes--from Google, IBM, Yahoo, and others--are rising in prominence, but they're still not as sophisticated as Office. Even if they don't need to be, they've yet to make a dent in Microsoft's 95% market share.

The open source faithful tout Ubuntu and other desktop Linux variants as Windows killers, but they don't support many popular desktop apps, they're not intuitive for most nontechie users, and their future isn't tied to one established caretaker. Interesting that IBM, once the center of the IT universe, is positioning itself as a cheaper, simpler alternative to mainstream products in selling and supporting both OpenOffice applications and Linux servers.

Software as a service, already in the mainstream for CRM, is just starting to become a legitimate option for ERP, business intelligence, supply chain management, and other business apps. One of the biggest concerns about Web-based software is security: the fear of putting your company's most sensitive customer, product, and other proprietary information in "the cloud"--as if those applications and data were floating in the ether rather than locked up in data centers whose security sometimes rivals Fort Knox. There also are questions about who owns the data, especially when it comes to doing business with Google. When a company professes to live by the credo "do no evil," customers can't help but worry that evil lurks.

But if CIOs are serious about simplifying their software infrastructures, at some point they'll have to make some bold moves. Or at least incremental ones. Procter & Gamble, a poster child for Microsoft collaboration applications, is rolling out Google Apps (Web-based e-mail, calendaring, messaging, word processing, and spreadsheets) to a small subset of its employees, presumably to gain some leverage with Microsoft and gauge whether Google is enterprise-ready.

If you like what you have, stick with it. But if you don't, stop making excuses and make a move. No one said making things simpler would be easy.


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To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.