The December 19th issue of the Economist had an unsigned article under the title Consumer technologies are invading corporate computing, celebrating the end of corporate IT control - in the form of praise for an out-sourcing to google of various services at Arizona State University.
The article approvingly quotes the IT head involved, one Adrian Sannier, in support of its own conclusions - apparently the somewhat transverse idea that centralised IT empowers users and dooms corporate IT.
IN OCTOBER, shortly after taking over as head of information technology (IT) at Arizona State University, Adrian Sannier gave the nod to his contact at Google, the internet giant known for its search engine, and with one flick of the proverbial switch 65,000 students had new e-mail accounts. Unlike the university's old system, which stores e-mails on its own server computers, the new accounts reside on Gmail, Google's free web-based service. Mr Sannier is not forcing anybody to change but has found that the students, many of whom were already using Gmail for their private e-mail, have been voluntarily migrating to the new service at a rate of 300 an hour. Crucially, they can take their "asu.edu" e-mail addresses with them.
Using Google's services has several advantages for companies. Most employees already know how to use web-based software, and thus do not need training. They can access the services through any web browser, regardless of what kind of computer (or telephone) they use. Like the consumer service, the corporate product is free. (Mr Sannier pays for support "less than $10,000" but most organisations do not.) And in-house IT staff need do absolutely nothing, since the data and software reside on Google's server computers.
For Mr Sannier, however, a bigger reason than money for switching from traditional software to web-based alternatives has to do with the pace and trajectory of technological change. Using the new Google service, for instance, students can share calendars, which they could not easily do before. Soon Google will integrate its online word processor and spreadsheet software into the service, so that students and teachers can share course work. Eventually, Google may add blogs and wikis: it has bought firms with these technologies. Mr Sannier says it is "absolutely inconceivable" that he and his staff could roll out improvements at this speed in the traditional way by buying software and installing it on the university's own computers.
In the past, innovation was driven by the military or corporate markets. But now the consumer market, with its vast economies of scale and appetite for novelty, leads the way. Compared with the staid corporate-software industry, using these services is like "receiving technology from an advanced civilisation", says Mr Sannier. He is now looking at other consumer technologies for ideas. He is already using Apple's iTunes, a popular online-music service, to store the university's podcasts.
With Google Apps for Your Domain and other software services that are accessed through a web browser, the security issues are more subtle. Since the software and the data reside on the service provider's machines, the danger is of losing control of sensitive data, which is now in somebody else's hands. Most IT bosses find this scary. Not so Mr Sannier. He remembers a picture that Google showed him of one of its data centres burning to the ground; it looked awful. The point, however, was that no users of Google services anywhere even noticed, because Google's systems are built to be so robust that even the loss of an entire data centre does not compromise anybody's data.
"I have a staff of about 30 people dedicated to security," says Mr Sannier. "Google has an army; all of their business fails if they are unable to preserve security and privacy." Google's Mr Girouard says a similar evolution in trust occurred when people reluctantly accepted that their money was safer in a bank than under a mattress.
Look closely and what The Economist has him saying is that google's data centers can replace his in house organization to deliver better user services at lower costs - while adapting much more quickly to both demand and technology changes.
As a set of arguments for centralised, any client, computing I like what they have him saying - but I'm also reminded that sometimes a cigar is a just a cigar and that advanced civilisation he's so stunned by has a rather well known name: Unix. That's how google does it, and that's how a part timer babysitting two small Sun systems could deliver the same or better services in-house.
So why is he out-sourcing his responsibilities? The Economist says it's cheaper to use google, but it isn't - that's tomorrow's topic - so if you assume that both his comments and the astonishment expressed in them are real, what conclusion can you draw? Mine is that his own people not only can't do the job, but can't conceive of doing the job - "inconceivable" he calls it, despite having a staff large enough to devote 30 of them just to PC security battles. In other words, I can only conclude that he has a Wintel organization with Wintel staff who would put up enormous procedural, knowledge, and technology barriers if he tried to bring this stuff in-house without first out-sourcing it - and it's no coincidence that I know a lot of other IT managers in the same position.