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In Defense of Slow IT

Stop hectoring IT about how it's too much of a laggard in our modern tech world. Sometimes there are good reasons to take things slow.

Gartner analyst are warning that by 2015, 90% of the IT infrastructure and operations (I&O) departments in the U.S. will be unable to keep up with the pace of change and volume of operation required by business units.

"Over the years I&O has become risk-averse, and, with the introduction of new and changed IT services viewed as critical, the risk aversion of I&O has become problematic," according to Gartner analyst George Spafford, as quoted in a press release announcing the new study.

This is far from the first report Gartner has made warning that IT is in for bad times if it can't step up the pace of change. Analysts, vendors and technology media argue that IT is moving so slowly in adapting to cloud computing, mobile computing and big data that it's in danger of being isolated into a tiny, powerless subdivision, responsible only for feeding the mainframes twice a day and scrubbing malware from infected PCs.

Over the past few years, in fact, as the hype around cloud computing has reached its hysterical peak, the warnings to IT have come so thick and fast that the received wisdom is that IT is becoming irrelevant at many companies. Third-party providers will supply all the technical services a company needs, and consumer devices will serve as the new information delivery platform.

Meanwhile, IT has come to be regarded as a band of risk-averse dinosaurs, unwilling to adapt as the meteor of change comes hurtling out of the cloud.

But it's not true that IT people don't like change. What they don't like is new technology thrown into userland with little or no testing, or with no thought about how it would work with existing systems, or how data put in to the cloud could be taken out again.

IT can't always be the agent of change because it is perpetually caught between users' desire for new technology, and business requirements to maintain critical business systems. Of all the departments or specialties in IT, I&O is the one most responsible for keeping existing systems tuned, connected, secure and operational -- which means long periods of testing, rejection of some cool technologies, and orderly processes for adding new services.

Such behaviors don't mean IT is fighting progress. Not most of them, anyway. Most of them are defending the company's ability to continue operating, even if it has to do so using computers that are so last year they were probably made, well, last year. The same goes for apps purchased a decade ago, which have been tuned and rewritten to the company's specifications every year until they match exactly the workflow that business-unit managers want.

Even IT itself has internal contingents clamoring for change. Most big IT shops split the difference between stable and sexy by giving some department--I&O say-- responsibility for keeping operations running at five nines. Another group within IT, say developers, gets the plumb job of testing brand-new technology and figuring out whether it can help the business. But the same dilemma persists: developers want to ship hot new code out the door, while I&O wants to ensure it won’t bring down production systems.

Gartner's right that the rate of change is increasing. It's right that IT's I&O people are moving more slowly toward the future than the future is moving toward them. And it's right that I&O departments have to take seriously the changes that are swamping traditional IT processes. SaaS, virtualization and remote computing technologies of all kinds are making full-service, fully staffed internal IT and help-desk departments anachronistic. The trend toward handing off some of IT's responsibilities to cloud providers, outsourcers or hosting companies is too well established and too attractive financially.

However, Gartner is not right that, by moving slowly, I&O dooms itself to irrelevance. By keeping the trains running on time, I&O provides a stable operational platform on which employees can work and business can be conducted. That's still a valuable function, even in a cloudified, BYOD world. Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio

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