I have just finished Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch. Here is a sample:

The complexity and inefficiency of the client-server model have fed on themselves over the last quarter century. As companies continue to add more applications, they have to expand their data centers, install new machines, reprogram old ones, and hire ever larger numbers of technicians to keep everything running. When you also take into account that businesses have to buy backup equipment in case a server or storage system fails, you realize that, as studies indicate, most of the many trillions of dollars that companies have invested into information technology have gone to waste. [The Big Switch, p. 56]
Most of the software and almost all of the hardware that companies use today are essentially the same as the hardware and software their competitors use. Computers, storage systems, networking gear, and most widely used applications have all become commodities from the standpoint of the businesses that buy them. They don't distinguish one company from the next. The same goes for the employees who staff IT departments. Most perform routine maintenance chores - exactly the same tasks that their counterparts in other companies carry out. The replication of tens of thousands of independent data centers, all using similar hardware, running similar software, and employing similar kinds of workers, has imposed severe penalties on the economy. It has led to the overbuilding of IT assets in almost every sector of industry, dampening the productivity gains that can spring from computer automation. [The Big Switch, p. 57]

Carr makes an analogy with electric power. Many years ago, companies would have had their own power generators. This was very inefficient and we moved to a utility model, where generating capacity was concentrated and delivered to others over the electric grid. He foresees the emergence of a similar model with computing and applications, a movement to a utility model where capacity is delivered as required over the network.

Of course, as he notes, this is already upon us. Think of a couple of prominent examples: Amazon Web Services and the range of Salesforce.com's services.

Amazon provides computation, storage and other services on an on-demand basis. Werner Vogels, Amazon CTO, has an interesting presentation where he talks about Amazon's webscale services and discusses their rationale. The subtitle of the presentation is "compete on ideas, not resources". In terms that echo Carr's, he talks about the 70/30 switch, claiming that 70% of a firm's "time, energy and dollars is spent on undifferentiated heavy lifting" in building out infrastructure, while 30% is spent on "differentiated value creation". Amazon wants to help organizations reverse those numbers, reducing the time spent on undifferentiated, increasingly commodity, infrastructure.

I was looking at My Starbucks Idea the other day and was interested to see that it was powered by force.com. This is a suite of on-demand tools from Salesforce.com which claim to allow you to build enterprise applications without any custom development work. What immediately struck me was the way in which the service was promoted, echoing Carr and Vogels: the strapline is "Finally, focus on innovation, not infrastructure". I liked their line:

Free up the dollars wasted "keeping the lights on"

with a zero-infrastructure model.

The 'big switch' is going to be a major issue for libraries over the next few years. They spend too much time getting their systems to work, and not enough time putting them to work.

Of course, much will depend on what types of services are available to libraries from their providers and it will be as interesting to see how those providers reconfigure their offerings in coming years and what new providers emerge.

Note: I was prompted to note the Big Switch after reading and commenting on Mark Dahl's post here.

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Comments: 0

Apr 02, 2008
Chris Rusbridge

There's a lot in this. I had a discussion only yesterday about why Informatics needs to keep its own expensive IT infrastructure, including it's own email servers, instead of using the "free" University service. Best he could come up with was that the Informatics service might let ex-staff retain access after they leave! I do think there are better reasons than that (eg protected experimental environments), but I can't see much better reasons in the case of the email service.

However, when I first heard about S3 and EC2, I had a look at them. I remember reading about a company that had implemented a network-based backup and archive service using EC2, for instance. Bjut I took the trouble to read the licence, which of course has this amazing disclaimer, which shouts at you (this is as it was in 2006, so it may have changed):

"AMAZON WEB SERVICES ARE PROVIDED BY AMAZON ON AN "AS IS" AND "AS AVAILABLE" BASIS. AMAZON MAKES NO REPRESENTATIONS OR WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, WHETHER EXPRESS, IMPLIED, STATUTORY OR OTHERWISE WITH RESPECT TO AMAZON WEB SERVICES. YOU EXPRESSLY ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT YOUR USE OF AMAZON WEB SERVICES IS AT YOUR SOLE RISK. EXCEPT TO THE EXTENT PROHIBITED BY APPLICABLE LAW, AMAZON DISCLAIMS ALL WARRANTIES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, SATISFACTORY QUALITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, NON-INFRINGEMENT, QUIET ENJOYMENT, AND ANY IMPLIED WARRANTIES ARISING OUT OF ANY COURSE OF DEALING OR USAGE OF TRADE. AMAZON DOES NOT WARRANT THAT AMAZON WEB SERVICES ARE FREE OF VIRUSES OR OTHER HARMFUL COMPONENTS, OR THAT THEY WILL BE ACCESSIBLE ON A PERMANENT BASIS OR WITHOUT INTERRUPTION OR THAT THE DATA YOU STORE IN ANY SERVICE ACCOUNT WILL NOT BE LOST OR DAMAGED."

Yeah, well. I guess it's not bad for nearly free, but I would want something a darn sight better if I were betting my company (or library, or data service) to it!

Apr 19, 2008
simonfj

That's not really fair Chris. Amazon's just seeing if they can make a buck on their overordered/underutilized equipment. If we want to compare apples with apples then you'd compare Sun's offering as they have been pushing this barrow since they started = the Network IS the computer. It's still the old 80/20 rule.

$1/CPU hr still seems a bit expensive, but (from what I read) they're not charging for storage. I guess if worldcat were loaded onto their WW grid then we'd get some idea of the real costs of running a global interactive space. i.e. How much OCLC and its customers could save.

We should have a better idea in 12 months, as Google and other ad subsidized networks get their clouds up. Hopefully, by then, the big switch may have gone on in National Libraries.