The IT janitor

Business IT landscapes are full with technological debt. Why do we keep ignoring the crud that has accumulated?

Suppose you build a house. When it's finished it's shiny, new, and clean.

Then you live in it for decades. Stacks of old newspapers litter the floors. Sometimes a bunch of these get thrown out. You only do superficial cleaning, and crud accumulates in all nooks and crannies.

You also want to embrace the new. You enthusiastically follow each fashion trend in furniture, appliances, and so forth. A new chair arrives, but the old one is still in use because grandma gets back pains when she uses the new one. You buy new nice plates and cups, but the old ones are not thrown away, just in case. The new robot vacuum cleaner cleans the living room, but the old one is still in a closet for the cleaning the robot cannot do. Even your replacements of worn out stuff leave leftovers all over the place. Still more crud accumulates in all nooks and crannies.

Sounds like a badly run household, doesn't it? However, it also looks very much how many businesses operate with respect to their IT landscapes. Today, many executives, spurred on by consultants and pundits, are feverishly trying to get on two bandwagons at the same time: the cloud and big data analytics.

Both are more than just fashion, true. There is real substance to their appearance, just as the commercial Internet was not only fashion when it burst upon the scene in the '90s.

But the fact that there is more substance than fashion does not mean that feverish behavior during the dot-com boom did not result in a dot-com bust around the start of the millennium. The boom and bust mainly came from the problem that most initiatives did not have a proper business model. In other words, they didn't have a way to make money, and this was painted over by grand -- but naive -- stories about a new economy.

This time, we're a little bit wiser. We're very much interested in business models to save money by going to the cloud or make it by using big data analytics.

Home free, then? Not quite, because something else is currently making live for these organizations difficult, namely the well known issue of technical debt.

For instance, the cloud is fine for operators like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Spotify, Apple, and so forth, who operate huge homogeneous landscapes. And it's fine for startups who are building a new house, so to speak. But most businesses these days trying to get on the bandwagon have medium-sized heterogeneous landscapes reflecting their heterogeneous businesses.

The cloud juggernauts are also the first ones to profit from letting loose simple algorithms on big data -- they're also big data analytics juggernauts. Big data, by the way, is these days also known as "the new oil," a sign of the gold rush fever that currently surrounds it. Always a sign of danger. The medium-sized heterogeneous organizations might have a lot of data (though "a lot" is not very specific, and often is not that much compared to modern day realities) and are now looking at profiting from the new oil.

Hence, most businesses that are now jumping on both bandwagons are not homogeneous juggernauts at all. And it could very well be that, if they are not careful, they are going to pay a price that resembles the dot-com bust.

Their move towards the cloud is fraught with technical bottlenecks, for instance because their applications have not been built for cloud deployment. Another reason is that there is very little attention paid to the ugly crud that has assembled itself in the nooks and crannies of the organizations. Which means that actually making the IT-landscape cloud-ready and integrating (not just tacking-on) big data analytics runs into all kinds of problems because of technical debt.

Even if you have proper life cycle management on your infrastructure (many organizations have this), there may still be a huge amount of technical debt as LCM activities are also just another change in the landscape that often result in new debris here and there, or at least they often do not diminish the debris.

Now, hospitals, schools, factories, most organizations need the basic physical hygiene of the workplace. For hospitals this is clear to many, but it's a fact of life for every organization. But while the cleaners visit the physical landscape everyday to prevent the dangerous buildup of crud, generally no such thing happens in the virtual landscape.

Some agile projects have cleaners in their teams, but there remains little awareness at corporate level that one needs this kind of thing for the virtual landscape as well. For one, hygiene isn't sexy. But more importantly, the crud of the virtual landscape is just invisible to most managers. While down on the IT shop floor everybody has to live with it every day, and while strategic management will feel the effects of it (when the organization can't move quickly enough in the direction they want it to move), it is largely invisible for top management which makes it feel unreal. If the building is dirty, top management will experience it too. If IT is dirty, they don't directly. As a result, top management seldom acts on the crud in a sustained manner. Incidentally, the invisibility issue of the business complexity that has resulted from the massive use of IT also hurts the awareness of the need for good Enterprise Architecture.

Data Center Public Domain Image

A shiny and clean data center may contain invisible virtual crud

Many organizations have a long history of grand new schemes and brand new plans and little attention to keeping the IT environment tidy. Most likely their current top managers are next in a series of managers before them that kept bringing in new fashions, couches, plates, cutlery, wall decorations, carpets, while constantly rebuilding, which resulted in a lot if invisible, but real, crud and debris. Currently, the business world is running two fevers at once, fevers that could become rather nasty for some organizations, as they work in unhygienic IT circumstances. And while many think the cloud at least will simplify IT landscapes, both developments will also result in even more complexity and -- unexpectedly for many --  even more hidden debris.

So, Bi-Modal IT everyone? Well, yes, unless it is just a way to shut your eyes for the crud. In the end, that ‘other' It is just part of your landscape, cloud or not. And BI-modal has a true risk of worsening the technical debt, the crud that builds up. Remember that "no free lunch" thing?

So, here is a message for the management of organizations that rely on IT a lot (and who doesn't these days?): don't think the mess won't trip you up because it is invisible to you.

What you need is a permanent IT janitorial service with its own responsibility, its own budget (including budget to get the business side to move) and you need to make sure your business units can't ignore the issue. This IT-janitorial service will be working all the time to clean up the inevitable mess, the technical debt, that comes with all the changes that happen all the time. If you don't do that, your new initiatives will remain to be like trying to do heart surgery in a pigsty, like trying to run a Formula 1 car on a dirt road, and like trying to do clean room operations in a mud hut. You get the picture.

Pay attention to the new bandwagons, certainly. There is real gold there. Don't be naive about them, though. But make sure you don't try to jump on one laden with so much technical debt that the jump will maim you.

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Discuss this or other opinions with me? I'll be giving the Enterprise Architecture keynote at the Enterprise Architecture Conference Europe 2016.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.