Revolution, Not Evolution

That we're in a time of great transition is, of course, obvious. That the future of computing is both mobile and connected, also obvious. Not so obvious is how painful this transition is proving to be. And that pain points to the fact that we're undergoing a technology revolution, and not an evolution.

The two most obvious examples of this technology revolution are cloud computing, an ill-defined and rarely understood technology if there ever was one, and the rise of smart phones, devices that fit in our pockets yet are more powerful than the average business PC desktop from just a few years back.

IT has feared cloud computing from its inception. The reason is simple: Those in IT see the trend towards off-premise computing as a threat to their job security. This is completely understandable and, unfortunately, probably at least partially correct. But IT has always been about efficiency, and one might make the argument, as I have, that by definition anyone in this business should be constantly expecting to evolve their skills as their jobs, and the technology they use, evolves as well.

You're not alone in this fear. Years ago, a former editor questioned me about cloud computing, which was at the time an emerging trend at best. "What happens to the magazine's audience?" she asked. "Will their jobs simply disappear?" I told her that the jobs would basically shift from the many on-premise data centers that we traditionally associate with the enterprise to a smaller number of much larger data centers, maintained by giant corporations like Microsoft and Google. The need to maintain these servers would still be there, however, I said.


Turns out, this supposition wasn't far-reaching enough. Actually, there is still much need for IT inside of the enterprise, and that will continue to be true even if cloud computing grips the world in a frenzy of cost-cutting and off-premise, services-based infrastructure. That's because businesses, even those that fully embrace cloud computing, will need to maintain some managed resources onsite and connect them, or federate them, with the hosted services. Long term, that scenario will evolve as well. But the need for traditional IT skills isn't going anywhere. It's just changing, evolving as always.

I have bigger concerns around mobile computing, specifically the proliferation of unmanaged smart phones that are now sweeping the world. As consumers move to smart phones like the iPhone and Google's Android in ever-faster numbers, they're expecting to be able to mix and match their work and home needs, all on one device. And many enterprises--too many, in my opinion--are simply giving in and allowing these users to utilize their own phones, accessing crucial corporate data via Exchange Server and other means.

The rationale behind this change is simple: Businesses believe it's cheaper to do this. After all, it's expensive to purchase, maintain, provision, and deploy smart phones. And if employees are just going to buy these devices themselves and shoulder the roughly $100 a month costs associated with their calling, messaging, and data plans, why bother offering to do this for them? That's money in the bank, right?

So all around the world, corporate blocks to internal data have come down to accommodate these devices. It's a glaring hole in the defenses against data loss, and one that I think will come back to haunt many companies in the future as users lose their unprotected smart phones or find them to be the subject of outright theft. It's a lot easier to leave a phone behind than a laptop, and laptops get lost on an alarming scale. I think we're only at the very tip of this smart phone era and only just starting to understand the importance of managing devices properly.

The silly thing here, of course, is that the technology to properly manage smart phones has been around for a long time. But in some ways, these tools were a bit too forward leaning, as they were tied to devices, like those based on Windows Mobile, that were archaic and not user friendly. I expect these tools to be more broadly deployed in the future as businesses understand they've unwittingly given away the keys to the kingdom, and as the technologies themselves evolve to manage more desirable devices.

I spent some time huddling with my compatriots at Windows IT Pro last week, debating these and other sea changes that will forever affect our businesses and the ways in which we manage technology. There's a lot to think about here, but I was left with one overarching thought, and hopefully this will be at least slightly comforting to anyone that supports technology for a living. Yes, everything is changing, and yes, change can be frightening. But the need for IT--good IT--is stronger now than ever before. And as for this revolution into an era connected and mobile computing, it won't happen successfully without you.

An edited version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul