IT Myth 3: All big shops run multiple platforms

Reality: This 'myth' is closer to fact than fiction

As the New Wave band Devo said, “Freedom of choice is what you got. Freedom from choice is what you want.” Were they right; is having no choice easier than having to decide for yourself? Does this principle apply to IT? Do enterprises seek heterogeneity rather than single-vendor solutions?

Experts agree this is not a myth. Some smaller companies are homogeneous, but larger companies inevitably become heterogeneous because of mergers and acquisitions, says Mike Gilpin, vice president and research director at Forrester Research. Besides, heterogeneity provides leverage. “It’s always useful to have some other vendor that you can use as a threat,” Gilpin says.

An official at Oblix concurs. “[IT personnel] like the leverage that they have by keeping it a heterogeneous environment,” says Ken Sims, vice president of marketing and business development at Oblix.

“It’s gone to the vast majority [being] heterogeneous,” says David Bartlett, director of customer and partner programs at IBM’s autonomic computing group. Formerly, the ratio of homogeneous to heterogeneous environments was about 80-20, but that ratio has at least reversed itself, Bartlett says. Companies’ desires to be global, to operate on a 24-by-7 schedule, and to be on the Internet have led the way to heterogeneity, Bartlett says.

“Most customers today usually have a mix of server types,” according to Jim Goethals, infrastructure simplification program manager at IBM’s systems and technology group.

“If you look at what’s typically on a desktop, for instance, that’s going to be Intel. Depending on the departmental environments, they could have Intel-based servers or Unix servers, and when you get into the datacenter, you’re going to find mainframes” as well as Intel and Unix systems, Goethals says.

Both heterogeneity and homogeneity have their pros and cons. One-vendor, so-called proprietary solutions bypass the hardships of having to make systems work together that were not built to do so. Proprietary solutions, however, tie a user to the whims of one or just a few vendors and offer limited options. So-called open solutions give users a variety of technology choices, theoretically driving down costs, given that multiple suppliers have to bid for your business. IT administrators, however, can have their hands full making everything integrate in an open world, requiring development of an alphabet soup of standards.

Just what exactly is an open system? If you talk to any technology vendor, it will tell you its system is open, whereas all the competitors’ systems are closed. The term open is usually applied to software or hardware that conforms to standards or features commodity parts.

Whereas most shops desire heterogeneity, some users prefer a single-vendor approach to at least part of their IT architecture. The city of San Jose, Calif., for example, recently has come under fire for making local networking vendor Cisco Systems its supplier of choice for networking equipment at a new city hall under construction.

In his 27 years of experience, Joe Poole, an IT official at Boscov’s Department Stores and manager of technical support, has watched his shop grow and diversify from a mainframe-only environment to a mix of a mainframe running VM and Linux plus RISC Unix boxes and Intel systems. Some applications such as the company’s merchandise conveyor system and its graphical applications simply run much better on the newer platforms, he says. Poole believes that, these days, no one can continue to be a single-platform shop.

“Nobody can, and I don’t think they will,” Poole says.

(Return to special report)

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