Beyond Computing: The Future of IT Infrastructure

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 10-27-2011

The Future of IT Infrastructure

IN SUMMARY:

Who: IT infrastructure experts from Accenture, Capgemini, Ernst & Young and others.

What: Discussing the IT infrastructure of the future.

Why: To give CIOs a glimpse of what the future holds as cloud computing, mobility and social media rewrite the rules of IT infrastructure.

It's not exactly a news bulletin that information technology is evolving faster than CIOs can keep up. Over the last few years, the Internet has matured, infrastructure has advanced and a tangle of new challenges has emerged. Mobile technology -- including smartphones and tablets -- has changed everything, and the cloud is about to change everything even more. "It's an exciting period, but one that is fraught with risks," observes David Nichols, partner for the Ernst & Young CIO Services Practice of North America.

For CIOs, it's the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, the opportunity to tap into technology and use it to achieve a competitive advantage has never been greater. The new physics of IT offers a wormhole to a place -- and a performance level -- that couldn't have been imagined only a few years ago. However, laggards increasingly find themselves staring into a black hole of Industrial-Age thinking and a hopelessly outdated network infrastructure. They can easily become shackled by inflexible systems that limit their ability to innovate.

The situation isn't going to get any easier in the months and years ahead. Employees and customers increasingly dictate which technologies will be used and how they will be applied in the workplace. Social media streams and advanced analytics continue to transform the way data, information and knowledge are collected, stored and put to use. Meanwhile, unified communications, virtualization and cloud computing are upending legacy business and IT models. And, if all this isn't enough to cause severe motion sickness, security and governance, risk management and compliance (GRC) challenges continue to increase. To learn more about how companies are dealing with these issues, read about the experiences of CIO Dale Potter at Ottawa Hospital and Wells Fargo & Company's Scott Dillon.

Says Stephen Nunn, global infrastructure consulting lead for Accenture: "The pace of change over the next few years will be enormous, and it will profoundly affect organizations. IT must venture beyond the role of assessing features, functions and technical specs; it must evolve beyond IT administration and selecting vendors. There's an urgent need to liaison with business leaders and build an infrastructure that supports next-generation business models." For more advice, read Seven Ways to Prepare for the IT Infrastructure of the Future.

Navigating the Post-PC Era

It's nothing less than ironic that it took a consumer darling from Cupertino to change the face of enterprise IT. Apple's introduction of the iPhone in 2008 and the unveiling of the iPad in 2010 introduced an array of features and capabilities that have revolutionized the way people live, work and communicate. Employees aren't just asking to use these devices; they're demanding to use them. Executives in the C-suite are clamoring for tablets and smartphones as well. As a result, IT has no choice but to support these consumer devices.

In fact, over the last couple of years, CIOs have begun to realize that there is no way to fight this trend--or push back the simultaneous tide of social media. Nor do smart businesses want to vanquish these tools because, when used effectively, they turbocharge performance and results. "Companies are finally coming to grips with the fact that restricting the use of devices and limiting how they are used are two entirely separate things," Nichols says. "You may want to restrict what can and cannot be done, but you do not want to limit how and where people receive information."

These consumer devices and tools have changed the dynamics of IT in profound ways. IT can no longer dictate which devices or applications will be used to tackle work. In fact, consumer technology is sometimes more effective at accomplishing certain tasks than are pricey, legacy IT systems. Consider: A business might partake in a research project -- complete with surveys and focus groups -- that takes weeks to complete. Or, it can unleash a crowdsourcing initiative that puts customers to work solving the problem within a few days through games, contests and other techniques.

Also driving this change is cloud computing and the rapid adoption of software as a service (SaaS). Although these tools are nothing new -- AOL and Yahoo! popularized the concept years ago -- advances in infrastructure and bandwidth create new ways to store, access and share data. Cloud computing not only allows organizations to dial up server capacity as needed to meet spikes in demand, it also helps organizations and workers sync data across multiple systems and devices while connecting them to others in radically different ways.

Andy Mulholland, global chief technology officer for consulting firm Capgemini, says that the Internet has entered the fourth phase of its evolution. The first stage was basic connectivity; the second iteration was global interaction among people; the third phase was sharing content; the fourth step is universal shared processes. In the end, the cloud is more than a way to use virtualization and save money, he says. It enables a flexible environment that, among other things, lets an enterprise tackle projects on demand and distribute micro-tasks among large groups of people. "The whole point of a services model is that you can construct processes externally between various partners on the fly," he explains.

Forrester Research goes so far as to predict that the IT organization of 2020 will look very different from what exists today -- if it exists at all. Analysts Alex Cullen and James Staten forecast that easy-to-acquire tools and technologies will usher in an era of business self-sufficiency. "Tech-savvy business managers and staff will provision their own technology solutions. Huge changes in the business landscape will up the ante for speed and agility. The IT status quo will collapse under these forces, and a new model--empowered BT [business technology]--will take its place," they note.

Beyond Computing: The Future of IT Infrastructure


Putting all these information technology pieces together -- virtualization and clouds, mobility, unified communications, social media and other tools -- creates a sum that's greater than the individual parts, Capgemini's Mulholland says. In this new and emerging world, CIOs must think differently than they have in the past. "The technology is creating entirely new data models that organizations must learn to manage and control," says Mulholland. "This requires new ways to approach work, processes, talent and security. It creates different connection points and relationships."

Today and in the future, CIOs must focus on leading the business rather than simply aligning with it, according to Mulholland. He predicts that over the next few years, outside developers, service providers and others will increasingly fill gaps and provide technical acumen that fuels accelerated development schedules. Managed-service providers will become even more ubiquitous and transparent. "It's clear that there are a lot of things that that don't make sense for an internal IT department to specialize in," Mulholland says. "It's not an argument to outsource or offload skills, it's an acknowledgment that there are different, and often more productive, ways to do things."

Accenture's Nunn sees a move away from monolithic outsourcing, as organizations establish an ecosystem of business partners -- including individuals and smaller firms. And while every enterprise must define its unique course, the need for internal expertise won't disappear. IT must better understand that the technology framework for business success consists of hiring talent that understands the dynamics of this new era and what's required. This includes internal tablet and smartphone apps to tap into the full potential of mobility, social media, the cloud and other tools.

Finally, there's the nettlesome issue of security. Ernst & Young's Nichols believes that security challenges will increase, as smaller and more diverse chunks of data -- some originated from other companies' servers connected through a cloud -- pass through enterprise networks. "Organizations must pay attention to transforming infrastructure and policies over time to accommodate mobility, social media and interconnected servers in the cloud," says Nichols. In the end, he notes, there's a growing need to focus on protecting data rather than obsessing over constantly changing devices and systems.

To be sure, this emerging IT environment offers both promise and pitfalls. Building an IT organization--or perhaps, more aptly, a BT organization -- that's agile and flexible enough to address this future translates into IT revamping systems but, more importantly, rethinking ways of doing things. In this largely unexplored universe, IT must understand that its role isn't to control systems and assets, it's to unleash new capabilities -- while teaching and guiding employees to use technology resources to maximum advantage.