The Art Of IT: Ultimate Outsourcing

In all likelihood, computing services will eventually be delivered to business in a manner similar to financial services. Although you'll be keenly interested in the characteristics of the services, you

March 31, 2006

3 Min Read
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In my first IT job, in 1983, I spent the summer cutting raised floor tiles to prepare for installation of three super-minicomputers--an IBM 4341, a Data General MV10000 and a Harris 800. The IBM system had lots of external storage, so I had to cut plenty of holes in the floor tiles. Once the machines were installed, I helped the systems administrators bring up their systems. While I was busy wiring in terminals, they were customizing the systems for my employer's needs.

Back then it was hard to imagine outsourcing most components of the data center. Physical access to the systems was critical for day-to-day management. But by the mid-1990s, we'd long since eliminated those systems and equipped the machine room for other uses. Our data center was in a different building from where the systems programmers and managers worked. Rarely did anyone need to enter the machine room.

Now, more than a decade later, it's reasonable to take that next step--let someone else run some or all aspects of your data center. Particularly for customer- facing applications, it makes sense to let someone else worry about multihomed Internet connections and whether the diesel generator will start quickly enough to cover the UPSs.

Today's outsourced data center services are often considered the precursors to a true utility computing environment. If you trust physical security and operational procedures to someone else, it follows that--with some technical advances in virtualization--you shouldn't worry about which machines host your applications. In theory, it'll become an operational detail to decide where and how applications run. When that happens, wanting to know exactly where your applications will run will make about as much sense as asking your bank to show you where it keeps your money.

Bypassing the OutsourcerThat said, I've never liked the utility notion for computing. The idea that you can just plug in and get the cycles you want on the applications you need is overly simplistic. I think it's far more likely that computing services will be delivered to business in a manner similar to financial services. A good bit of customization will be available and a variety of services will be developed to meet both the vertical and horizontal needs of the customer. Although you'll be keenly interested in the characteristics of the services you'll get, you won't care at all about how those services are delivered on the back end.

Those sorts of services are available today from software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers. They give you applications; the work of the relationship lies in customizing those applications to your business' needs. As long as a SaaS vendor doesn't experience service outages, there's absolutely no concern for how it delivers applications.

Not There Yet

So why not just go sign up for SaaS applications and skip the whole subject of data center outsourcing? It's mostly a matter of maturity. Although there are some excellent application services out there, the market is adolescent at best. Just as it's taken time for the financial services industry to offer businesses the services they need and to police itself so we can be relatively sure it's playing by the rules, so will it take time for the SaaS market to mature. Sure, application maturity and flexibility are part of the equation, but the bigger part: It'll take time for policing agencies to be created. And just as the government and the industry oversee the financial sector, the same will hold true for the SaaS market.

The government will probably enforce data privacy protection laws and other procedural regulations on SaaS providers. But whether the government applies rules, SaaS should only be seen as tactically useful until there's a way to measure the trustworthiness and maturity of the SaaS vendor. When that happens, you can stop worrying about how someone else will run your applications--it'll only be important that they do.Art Wittmann is editor in chief of Network Computing. Write to him at [email protected].

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