An Arab Spring For IT

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Gillmor Gang 02.04.12 (TCTV)

Editor’s note: Alan S. Cohen is Vice President of Marketing at Nicira. A 20-year IT veteran, Alan has held executive positions at Cisco, Airespace, Tahoe Networks, IBM, US WEST, Coopers & Lybrand, and the Department of Energy.

Change in the air. It’s palpable.

Those of us in the technology world are witnessing a transformation: A buyer-led revolution in how information technology is both produced and consumed. Smartphones and tablets are upsetting the PC order; social applications are impinging on traditional “workforce productivity” and communications applications.

And the infrastructure, the underlying electronic “institutions” that make all of this happen, are also undergoing a transformation that promises to reshape the boundary conditions of all the participants. The wave of disruption powered by virtualization, and now, cloud, is rapidly and dramatically reshaping how companies and organizations of all sizes purchase IT and who sells it to us.

Said simply, for the first time in a generation, information technology’s supply chain is in the state of serious disruption. It truly is an “Arab Spring” for the IT world and when it’s over, there will be a host of new companies driving enterprise technology. Don’t believe me? Let’s establish some historical context.

Most revolutions take time. There are always early revolutionaries who pave the way for the change in the system. Although we chart the Arab Spring to events in Tunisia just over a year ago, the underlying currents driving change in the Middle East are decades in the making. In our industry, the antecedents are also more than a decade old. VMware, the early power player in compute virtualization, was founded in 1998. Salesforce, the first big SaaS player, was founded in 1999. The iPod, the progenitor of the contemporary smartphone, was revealed publicly in 2001.

For those tuned in to IT’s golden oldies channel, there was a transformative revolution in the 1970s. It was called the PC.

At the center of these revolutions and disruptions, you will find end users who have a simple mantra: “We want what we want, when we want it, to get our jobs done.” Employers have to meet these goals. Yet their job can be doubly difficult: Companies and organizations are frequently locked into existing IT approaches and are now told to do more with less. Business leaders around the world are demanding that the current model of IT, one that has led to a multi-trillion dollar per year industry, become more responsive to their twin goals of business velocity and efficiency.

But today, at the beginning of what historians will someday call the “as-a-service” era of technology, there is a new mantra for Enterprise IT: Faster, cheaper, and pay only for what you use.

If IT providers do not supply what the end users want, the latter, like the brave individuals who took the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, will take matters into their own hands. Most often, the initial transformation happens as “shadow” IT. Bring your own device is shadow IT. Most SaaS applications start by bypassing IT and going directly to functional groups (managing sales through Salesforce or sharing through Box.net).

Think about it: Less than five years ago, people were questioning whether the iPhone was ready for the enterprise. In 2012, Apple is expected to sell $19 billion worth of iPhones and iPads to the enterprise, making iot the 25th largest IT vendor in the world. How’s that for a shadow IT movement?

Now it’s time for infrastructure. If IT does not provide the end user with the infrastructure they need, the latter can rent it, by the hour or month from companies like Rackspace or Amazon. All you need is a credit card and no approval from IT. What is powering this change? Software. Software will be the new hardware.

Like the Arab Spring, traditional powers in IT clearly know about the change that is underway. However, as with so many Middle Eastern heads of state, half-measures toward meeting end user requirements will not be enough. Adding a cool interface to onerous applications or a software stub to a piece of stubborn “iron” will not appease the end users.

In our world, it’s change or lose your franchise. Maybe that’s why Andy Grove knew only the paranoid survive.

Embracing rapid change is not the usual modus operandi for many IT superpowers. The need for top and bottom line growth, and the scrutiny of public markets, does not make changing your business model on-the-fly the easiest task. If you are a multi-billion dollar IT player, how do you explain to your installed base, “Guess what, everything is going to change?”

But if you are in IT, you have to ask yourself: What side of history will you wind up on?

Update: After seeing some of the reader response in the comment, Cohen sent the following note: “I apologize for offending people with the analogy used in this post — it was certainly not the intent. The intent was only to spur discussion on the transformation underway in IT.”