Homegrown solutions: The good and the bad

One size fits all is a bad idea for IT -- so we have to find new ways to split the difference between build and buy

Once upon a time, when AS/400s roamed in vast herds and S/390s ruled the roost, just about all of IT was homegrown. Vendors didn't have "solutions" -- they had platforms, and you customized them to fit business needs. Applications were written from scratch and tightly linked to business needs, with infrastructure sized and configured to match.

Today, we live in an era of homogenized, vendor-driven solutions that plug into existing infrastructures and are lightly customized. In the battle of build vs. buy, buy has won, with plenty of extraneous cruft carried along. This holds true for both hardware and software.

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The main reason for this shift has been the explosion of technological diversity. Where there was once a mainframe, green screens, and printers, there's now a wide palette of client access methods, networking, remote connectivity, security, storage, server infrastructures, virtualization, and so on and so forth.

Back when IT was "simple," several good programmers and support staff could run the whole show. Nowadays, it's difficult for smaller and midsize companies to justify keeping subject experts on staff for every part of the infrastructure. Instead, they buy hefty support contracts and shift the burden of maintaining and troubleshooting large parts of their IT infrastructure on to the vendors who may know their own product well, but have a hard time dealing with issues that may crop up during integration with other vendors' gear.

Essentially, moving to this model creates silos around the major components of IT, with a vague understanding of how the whole thing works together. This is where many companies find that their IT people spend a majority of their time sitting in meetings discussing problems with vendors on conference calls rather than actually researching and fixing the problems themselves. In those cases, the local IT staff can seem like little more than caretakers -- they don't have mental ownership of their own environment.

Clearly, this is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to be a trend. With the current economic climate and self-imposed austerity measures like hiring freezes, it's sometimes easier to get support contracts through the budget process rather than new hires when there's a technological shift in the data center.

In other cases, nontechnical management gets the heebie-jeebies when presented with a plan that includes homegrown, self-supported solutions. Many executives would rather have a passel of slightly technical folks and vendor support than highly skilled and highly paid technologists to keep the trains running on time. There's a reasonable concern regarding the attrition of necessary skill sets and dependence on a few essential employees, but highly skilled key people are generally what makes a business successful, no matter what department they're in.

The problem is that there aren't good metrics available to determine the cost of doing business this way. When you move some or all of your IT infrastructure out to a cloud vendor and turn the data center into a storage room, you may be able to measure your savings in terms of the electrical bills and IT payroll, but the hidden costs can make those savings disappear. Instead of being able to turn on a dime and bring new solutions into place at critical times, you're beholden to the scheduling and malleability of a third party that's already been paid and is working under a lengthy contract. When you need to "make things happen," you simply can't -- you get stuck in months of apathetic meetings and general buffoonery from every angle. That's not even touching the problems inherent with outsourcing help desk and general computing tasks.

Now, there are good reasons for companies to carry support contracts for hardware components like switching and physical servers, and certainly vendors need to be held accountable to support their own products. However, relying solely on support contracts and generic solutions is a good way to self-limit the agility and performance of any business. In short, more gurus equals less hand-wringing and stress all around.

This story, "Homegrown solutions: The good and the bad," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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