IT and Groundhog Day

[Originally posted Feb 1st 2008]

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day!

If it is sunny the groundhog will see its shadow and winter will continue for six more weeks. In Calgary I can pretty well guarantee, despite sunny or cloudy weather today, we’ll have snow a few more times before we see the end of this winter.

But Groundhog Day is also, according to the Internet Movie Database, the name of the 186th best movie of all time. In that movie Bill Murray plays a character forced to live February 2nd over and over and over until he got it right. The idea of endless repetition provides a good framework from which to view a few current IT trends.

What trends are worthy of discussing on the day of Punxsutawney Phil or, to give a Canadian slant, on the day of glory for Wiarton Willie or Balzac Billy? Three topics come to mind: SOA, Cyberinfrastructure, and ITIL.

Are these new ideas or are these IT versions of Bill Murray waking up yet again to “I’ve got you Babe”? I think the image really isn’t one of Bill waking to a Sonny and Cher song on the clock radio, but perhaps he is waking to the same song but now performed by Lucky Dube on YouTube. Mostly the same words and musical score, but a remarkably different performance on a remarkably different media in a remarkably different cultural and political environment. So let us explore some ideas.

SOA. Service Oriented Architecture. There is a lot of hype and marketing around these three letters. Is the concept completely new? Not really. Many many years ago students, like me, were taught new programming languages (such as SP/k) in an attempt to move us from spaghetti code to a concept called structured programming. Reusable code was the mantra. But, as in many things in life, the vision of what was possible back then pales compared to what is possible now. Back then we talked about individual programmers developing reusable code. Then, as we progressed from Structured Programming to Object Oriented Programming, we worked on building reusable and sharable libraries. Now Service Orient Architecture envisions people reusing sets of services, where the services themselves might be distributed across a network. The key repetition in the cycle is the goal of reuse. A worthy goal, no doubt. Reuse can save time, increase efficiency, reduce costs. Look on the web and you’ll find many exciting applications being developed via SOA. But look into your organization, especially within your enterprise business applications, and you are unlikely to find many examples of service oriented architecture.

Why don’t we see many mainstream business applications available under SOA frameworks? Perhaps the main reason is the cycle time for the development and implementation of new technologies. It may be easier to build and deploy and gain mindshare for some new products that are exploring new needs. It is somewhat more difficult to build and deploy and gain mindshare for something that does something like manage the general ledger. But, technology cycle time aside, moving to SOA for corporate business functions will create some new challenges for IT. And, ultimately, the key issue won’t be a technology issue but rather will be about application and data ownership. We will need to create new service agreements and frameworks to ensure that these SOA applications — which may have embedded services that aren’t run by your own IT shop and or are even understood by people within your own organization — will continue to function and meet your business needs.

Cyberinfrastructure. The Alberta Cyberinfrastructure Task Force describes Cyberinfrastructure (CI) as the integration of Information Communications Technology infrastructure needed to support advanced, internationally competitive and groundbreaking research. They (which included me, by the way) go on to say that Cyberinfrastructure uses grid middleware and advanced research networks to integrate large numbers of distributed computers, data storage facilities, visualization tools, remote sensors and collaboration facilities. Is the concept completely new? Not really. Years ago I recall conversations that included many of those elements as we planned Super Computing initiatives that were focused on determining new models for distributed computer systems, improving the capacity and capability of storage infrastructure, visualizing scientific data and finding ways to enable many researchers to not only work on a shared set of hardware but also to enable new sharing of applications and research. We even had a decade or so after Super Computing where we retagged it as High Performance Computing — not only because we had decreased our aspirations of being “super” but also because there became a marked separation of the High Performance Computing most facilities could offer from some of the amazing increases in capacity and capability being make available by select (mostly government) sites.

Perhaps a superficial read of description of Cyberinfrastructure makes it sound like a rebranding an existing product to make it sound exciting. Cyberinfrastructure, the New and Improved High Performance Computing! But digging deeper into the aspirations and requirements of Cyberinfrastructure show it to be a new day for technology in support of research. The difference can be drawn from several of the words in the description — integrate, distributed, remote, collaboration — plus from one key word that didn’t make it into the above description — service. Cyberinfrastructure is not just about more computers, more storage and more data. It is a fundamental change. In some ways it is the Service Orient Architecture of the infrastructure. We should no longer care where the compute is located, storage doesn’t need to be in the same place as the compute, data is derived in near real-time from various sources, and the running of the infrastructure and the location of the associated support services and software is irrelevant to the customer. This is a radically different model from the creation of the Super Computing Centres of the past. In some ways we might think of this as the “Virtual Super Computer Centre”.

There are many technical challenges in building the Cyberinfrastructure. But, like SOA, I think the critical issues will be centred on developing the appropriate support and service models. Who makes the decisions about service levels and service availability? How do we utilize the infrastructure in an optimal way? How do we even understand the dependencies of services that span across multiple organizations?

That brings us to our third topic.

ITIL. Information Technology Infrastructure Library. This is one of the IT acronyms that doesn’t gain any clarity by expanding out the words. It refers to IT creating coherent, correct and repeatable processes. ITIL will be the unlikely hero in our IT Groundhog Day scenario.

ITIL has roots into the 1980s. IBM developed various Systems Management concepts and published a set of books. These concepts weren’t about the technical implementation, but rather about the management of IT and, over time, ITIL was created from these concepts. Via a long and rocky path ITIL has evolved to become a significant force in the world of IT process management concepts. I don’t want to oversell ITIL. It doesn’t actually provide much with respect to how you should manage the IT processes, but it does provide a strong framework about what you need to do. There will be more discussion about ITIL in future blogs!

So, to tie all this back to Groundhog Day, today’s key IT issues have some of the same aspects of yesterday, but changes like SOA and Cyberinfrastructure will make tomorrow remarkably different than yesterday. Our new day in IT will contain complexities and dependencies we couldn’t imagine a few years ago. Much of what you rely on to run your business won’t be directly managed and controlled by your local IT shop. The only way to ensure the new IT meets your needs will be to make significant headway in both how we manage our processes and our ability to focus on supporting the customer.

IT organizations that don’t understand and respond to these changes will find that when they wake up on Groundhog Day they have become irrelevant.

Happy Groundhog Day!