Best Practices for Building the IT Infrastructure

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The hot news on the street this week is that Microsoft will probably ship its new operating system called Vista "on time." The operative phrase is "on time," which means at the beginning of 2007.

Come again? Hasn't this operating system's debut been delayed over and over? How many times? Click here for a look at "A Short History of Windows Vista Delays."

It appears that a number of IT journalists have made a career out of waiting for Vista. Maybe they'll have to update their resumes soon. Or will they?

How Slipping a GA Delivery Date Can Build the Hype

Funny isn't it that Vista has been delayed so long that the PC gurus are actually excited that it's going to finally ship years late and are now trying to claim a timely GA date? Such is the nature of the Microsoft culture, I guess.

By comparison, if the System i folks up in Rochester slipped GA dates for a new release, the rumors on the street would be that IBM was finally mothballing the whole operation. Unfair, but that's the way IT journalists and IT organizations see this versatile and venerable computing platform called the System i.

Rochester's Position on Vista

What's interesting is how IBM is dealing with the approach of Vista. Recently, at the fall COMMON Conference, I asked Elaine Lennox, IBM's System i marketing executive, whether IBM has a comprehensive plan for marketing against the Microsoft Vista juggernaut. Her response was interesting.

Lennox said IBM has all the technical pieces in place to make certain that the System i will work with Vista, but she gave me the impression that there was no marketing strategy to compete. IBM has been busy, instead, formulating viral marketing strategies to promote the System i into the mindset of CFOs and CTOs, with testimonial sites like the new i want control/truth Web site and COMMON's iSociety Web site.

This is a typical IBM Rochester approach: Make sure it works with the competition before you create a plan to compete against the competition.

Can the System i Ever Compete Against Microsoft?

Of course, it's pointless to rail against Microsoft or Vista's delays. The Windows operating system is on 90% of the desktops in the world, and IDC says that it represents about $44 billion (or 30%) of Microsoft's revenue. Microsoft will make Vista work because it has no choice. PC vendors will bundle Vista because they have no choice either. Customers will end up with Vista because their choices are limited. In other words, Microsoft doesn't really have to market Vista against other operating systems any more: It merely has to deliver it...on time, sometime, someday.

By comparison, i5/OS (the operating system on the System i) is bundled with a business computer that will never make it into our households. It generates only a quarter of the revenue that Microsoft currently gets from Windows (approximate $11 billion at last count). In addition, its market share of the server market hovers around 10% while it competes against a much broader array of operating system platforms. The System i is a small (but, we are told, important) part of IBM's total revenue stream, but it actually competes against other server and operating system products within IBM's catalog of offerings (including IBM offerings that incorporate Microsoft Windows/Vista). By comparison to Vista, the System i must be marketed against Microsoft, Sun, HP, and (cautiously) other IBM offerings just to sustain its position.

Finally, the Microsoft Vista offering is positioned primarily as a "consumer product," while IBM's System i offering is entirely a "business offering." The fact that Microsoft is actively pursuing the business market while IBM completely ignores the consumer market is a fact of life.

IBM's System i Strategies

IBM's key strategies for the System i are aimed at obtaining new customers who typically might consider only Microsoft solutions. IBM is still talking about the "killer application" that will make non-System i customers sit up and take notice. It still hopes to expand the awareness of the platform to younger IT people through its university education alliances. These strategies include the soon-to-be available 3Com VoIP telephony product and the native Zend PHP scripting support.

In addition, IBM pursues its strategy to make the platform more affordable through various Business Partner pricing structures emanating from the IBM Software organization.

For instance, last week (October 5, 2006) IBM announced the inclusion of several mid-market software offerings in its successful Express Seller initiative for IBM Business Partners. Added to the Express Seller initiative are Lotus Domino Collaboration Express, Lotus Domino Messaging Express, Lotus Domino Utility Server Express, IBM Workplace Services Express, IBM Tivoli Continuous Data Protection (CDP) for Files, and IBM Tivoli Storage Manager Express.

But these strategies raise a couple of interesting questions:

  • What CFO actually cares about the operating system or the computing platform?
  • Will the business computing marketplace ever be ripe for real revolution?
  • Are the cultural differences within IT between the Microsoft gurus and the System i gurus too great to ever permit more than a kind of resentful coexistence?

A Call for New Best Practices Infrastructure Initiatives

What is needed, in my opinion, is not a new marketing ploy, but a clearer definition of what defines "best practices" for an IT shop's computing infrastructure.

Consider: The competitive platform wars are detrimental to the health of IT and expensive to wage for the corporations that are embroiled in them. They also create confusion for product vendors, business partners, and CFOs who are trying to bring financial order to their infrastructure.

Instead of dividing up the hardware/software pie into competing sectors, what's needed is an industry-wide initiative to identify how differing platforms can work cooperatively and successfully with the best return on investment (ROI).

Here, IBM has already done a lot by making all of its systems compliant with so-called "industry standards" and by supporting open source in key areas wherever feasible.

Microsoft too is moving in that direction, but it's embracing the movement slowly, and questions about its commitment remain, especially as Vista is being readied for the market.

How Best Practices Can Help Everyone

Just as the philosophy of client/server architectures once propelled a generation of PC server-based applications into the business world, so too an "infrastructural best practices" philosophy could facilitate a stronger IT organization by informing CFOs where different platforms can play their strongest cards, thereby delivering the best ROI. It could identify where specified functions within the infrastructure could be best served by specific platforms.

This "best practices" document wouldn't be generated by the claims of vendors or by technology analysts who have an axe to grind, but by a panel of CFOs who have the bottom line firmly in mind.

Analyst organizations like Gartner started out to do something like that by offering analyses about a broad range of various products. Unfortunately, these independent analyst voices were soon co-opted by the industry players, and IBM or Microsoft or HP could hire specific analysts to write white papers to tout the advantages of platform X over platform Y. You can't blame the analysts, but you can blame the industry itself for not fostering some structure that could map out and define the best practices that a CFO or CTO should follow to meet the business requirements of the corporation.

Whose Best Interests?

Of course, critics of this approach will quickly point out that it's not in the best interests of the big players in the technology industry to support such a document or process. It's too easy to view this idea as "anticompetitive" and draconian. But, by the same token, without such a process or document, shareholders of corporations can't be certain that the technologies that the CFO or CTO is using to build the infrastructure is solid, secure, and cost-effective.

Let's use a typical UNIX shop as an example. UNIX IT shops have become renowned for the number of personnel they require to keep the organization running. Is that number defined by any logical or consistent metric? Or do UNIX shops just grow in personnel as the number of IT functions increases?

One might suspect that a CTO gains more power within his organization as the number of his employees increases. One might also suspect that a certain status is derived by the budget size that the corporation allocates to the CTO's IT department.

But if a CFO has never worked in an organization that isn't fueled by UNIX, how would he know that his corporate IT strategy is out of control? A bottom-line review against other UNIX shops would give him one metric, but it provides no comparison to other organizations with similar requirements using a different computing infrastructure. And because software vendors follow vertical market segments, dragging computing platforms into the organizations behind them, the current status quo is a formula for perpetuating the waste and the poor investment decisions.

But a document written by informed CFOs that identifies "best practices" for specific IT infrastructures could help the CFO discover where cost savings could be found—computing platform by computing platform. Such a document could empower the CFO to more accurately judge where the best ROI in any particular sector might be found.

It would also allow the organization to make investment plans in technology that would lead to better control of IT resources, while simultaneously permitting stockholders to feel better about how the organization is being managed.

A Technology Industry Standard Set by CFOs

Perhaps such a "best practices" process or document exists somewhere today, but it certainly is not an industry standard written by CFOs.

Instead, what we have is a marketplace in which the vendor with the largest bank account can market and manipulate companies into acquiring their products.

There are no "target savings" for implementing the new Vista operating system. There are no industry-recognized ROI figures comparing Vista against Windows XP, Linux, i5/OS, UNIX, or any other server operating system. There is no track record for the new OS, no readily recognizable advantage. It's merely the next Microsoft operating system that our Windows IT gurus will be eager to roll out. Microsoft says it will be more secure, more productive, and more "revolutionary." But a bottom line that informs the CFO about the real value of this rollout is still clearly an unknown.

I, for one, think our corporations and their stockholders deserve a better metric.

What do you think?

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press, LP.

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  


Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at





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