The Big Switch

Also finished reading The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, by Nick Carr. It follows on from his previous book, “Does IT Matter?“, and the article he wrote in the Harvard Business Review that started it all.

A lot of the book covers similar ground to “Does IT Matter?”, though it has been brought bang up to date (witness references to the iPhone, for example), and has a different perspective, looking at the constructive effects of the commoditisation of IT, rather than the more pessimistic view of the earlier book.

It’s hard to argue with the basic premise: corporate IT is becoming a commodity, and it is a trend that is starting to accelerate. Virtualisation has been embraced enthusiastically by the industry (just look at the way all of the big enterprise vendors have piled into this space).

Right now, people are focused on virtualising familiar and comfortable things: operating systems, storage, networks. This will bring great cost savings, both through consolidation and simplification, but also through an increasing trend to move less essential systems out of the corporate data centre, and into shared (commodity) hosting environments.

All very much Good, Right, and True, but Carr also points to the next wave beyond this very physical virtualisation: virtualisation of business services.To me, this is where we start seeing real transformation, rather than just optimisation. The service cloud, as opposed to the compute cloud (or storage cloud, or whatever). Virtualisation of the physical aspects of computing is a wonderful thing, and an essential step on the road towards making IT a utility. However, I believe that the real benefit will come when we move up the food chain, and start thinking in terms of what our business clients need, and not just in terms of what would make the data centre cheaper or simpler.

As in the earlier book, Carr does a good job in highlighting analogies with the early days of electrification, as that industry moved from being a proprietary advantage for a few, to being a commodity that became an essential part of life for both corporations and individuals. One thing I found interesting was his account of how society changed as a result of ubiquitous electric power: over time, electricity did not just replace steam and hydro power, but enabled a wholesale transformation of how business worked, which in turn gave rise to the modern office, white collar workers, domestic consumerism, etc., etc. We’re already starting to see major changes with the commoditisation of IT, especially with the globalisation of significant parts of the IT job market. The question of “where next?” is an important one that isn’t being asked often enough today, and Carr is to be commended for raising it.

I found the end of the book (“iGod”), to be a little disappointing, as the tone suddenly jumps into tabloid-style speculation about Google as “big brother”, neural implants, etc. I wonder if his publishers made him put it in, sort of like the obligatory sex scene in blockbuster novels?Overall, the book is thought-provoking and well worth the read. Even if you have read his previous book,  I think that this advances the argument nicely, and it is a subject that urgently needs more discussion.

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One Response to “The Big Switch”

  1. Chris Swan Says:

    Carrying on with the analogy about electricity makes me think that this is why virtual appliances will be such a huge factor as this story plays out. Consumers have mostly no idea how electricity gets to the socket, but when they plug in their appliance it does something useful for them. The same will become true in the compute/services cloud – hardware virtualisation provides the ‘socket’, but what we’re presently pluging into it is the equivalent of a hobby kit that we made ourselves (when we still needed to generate our own ‘power’). It will then come down to the ingenuity of the appliance makers to come up with stuff that’s functional and easy to consume. What the really clever people will be doing is building the appliance factories – as this is where the big functionality and wealth generating levers are.

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