Monday, October 7, 2013

What will IT do now?

2003: First, Back to the Future 

Back in May 2003, Nicholas Carr wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review provocatively titled “IT Doesn’t Matter”. That triggered a firestorm, and legions came to defend the IT folks whom this article seemed to malign and marginalize. Of course, IT matters!” became the rallying cry and card-carrying members of the IT profession responded in droves.
Ten years after the first printing of that article, it is worthwhile to take a look back at Carr’s hypothesis and see where we are. Was he right?

Contrary to popular assumption and headlines, Carr actually wrote that “no one would dispute that information technology has become the backbone of commerce”. He was not trying to undermine the importance of the sector. But, he did add that, “By now, the core functions of IT—data storage, data processing, and data transport—have become available and affordable to all”. He hypothesized that IT is not a strategic advantage anymore - because scarcity - not ubiquity of a product is the differentiator, and IT’s core functions had already become ubiquitous. With the proliferation of technology and the reductions in cost, he surmised that IT had become just another commodity. Most now believe he got that right.

But the real gem, hidden away in that article, was this prediction:

More and more, companies will fulfill their IT requirements simply by purchasing fee-based “Web services” from third parties—similar to the way they currently buy electric power or telecommunications services.
Carr did not call it “Cloud Services” or IaaS, or SaaS, or even PaaS (or any of the daily new variants of the *-as-a-Service), but he might as well have. In my view, the vision to see that technology resources will become commoditized in that manner, and that infrastructure would transition to an off-premises environment - and organizations would be paying for the functional use of technology being hosted, supported, upgraded and maintained by others – that, was his unique insight. The concept had been in discussion before Carr (John McCarthy in the 1960s discussed “computation may someday be organized as a public utility”), but Carr may have been one of the first to articulate it so precisely. 
In retrospect, Carr clearly got this outsourcing revolution right; perhaps even more than he had imagined in 2003.

IT in 2013 and beyond

The changing landscape

In order to consider what IT will do, we need to understand the major disruptors which we face:

 1.      Cloud

·  The movement of data, applications and a variety of IT services to third parties, hosted and managed off-premises.

2.      Mobile Devices and applications

·  The “Consumerization” of technology defined by the influx of personal devices into the enterprise.

·  The coming revolution in mobile apps for the delivery of enterprise information.

·  The shift from devices to services.

·  Movement from Bring-your-own-devices (BYOD) to Bring-your-own-application (BYOA).

3.       Security and collaboration

·  Challenges of managing personal devices in the enterprise.

·  The impact of enterprise data in the ‘Personal cloud’.

·  Real time collaboration and the need for speed and rapid turnarounds.

·  Ubiquitous access on any device from anywhere.

4.     Big Data and mining

·  The consolidation of data into very large sets.

·  The analysis of this data using sophisticated Business Intelligence (BI) tools.

·   Cognitive computing and the movement of analytics from specialists to consumers of that data.

·   Use of ‘Search’ morphing into actionable analytics.

The Cloud:

Among the changes we are seeing, none is more disruptive than the Cloud. What was an aberration for most organizations, is now a hard reality with numerous choices and changes. The movement of technology assets to an off-premise environment, the challenges of that transition, and then managing this new environment – is a change comparable in magnitude to the advent of the first LANs.
The on-premises server environments were set up and created with expensive infrastructure costs. When you added the expenses for servers, racks, batteries, backup systems, HVAC etc., these server-rooms did not come cheap. And now, the servers are leaving the building….someone will have to calculate the cost of all these soon to be abandoned spaces.
In this new paradigm, as servers are finding new homes among the clouds, desktops are likely to follow suit (yes that is next). The major software application vendors are actively encouraging customers (organization and individuals alike) to move to a cloud model, or face increased costs.
The manner in which we are paying for these cloud services is a major financial change too. We don’t buy hardware and software anymore, we lease it. For the C-Suite, the movement of expenses from CapEx to OpEx is creating its own challenges. Depreciation of these assets may be a thing of the past.
So, in this environment, how is IT changing? The skills to manage these changes, necessarily requires some realignment too.
When I have asked Systems Engineers or Systems Administrators, who are currently responsible for racks of servers: What will you be doing a couple of years from now? – a troubling response is more the norm, rather than the exception. Most think that they will magically follow the servers to wherever these assets are headed. If only they fully registered how many people are actually running the datacenters for the Amazons, Google and Microsoft’s of the world – they would panic! The truth is there aren’t that many that are needed to run these enormous data repositories. 
The era of multitudes of Systems Engineers and Systems Administrators managing server rooms in every organization, is approaching an end. The horse carriage mechanics will need to find something else to do, because a different mode of transportation is already here
Those in denial also seem to hide behind two other common contentions:
“Don’t worry, it won’t happen here”.
“My management is worried about security in the cloud”.
The first seems to imply either that we have ‘special’ data which cannot be moved to the cloud; or, that the costs of moving are prohibitive and would never work for this organization.
The primary reason for movement to cloud alternatives is in fact cost. It is far cheaper to place assets in the cloud, than to host them internally, and the prices are falling! The ‘teaser’ prices which everyone thought would go through the roof once you have made the initial move to the cloud, are actually coming down even more.
Those concerned about security in the cloud need to consider two questions: 
Are you personally doing any online banking?  (Most of us now do)
Do you know that the CIA has signed a $ 650 million a year contract for their data with Amazon? 
And why is it that you are comfortable with your personal banking data in the cloud but not the enterprises? Besides the CIA, the FAA has data in the cloud, the FDA has data in the cloud and so do multitudes of government, nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Yes, there are some nuances between hybrid, private and public clouds – nothing is 100% secure (not even on-premises) -but most experts now believe that the movement of data out of the organizations is inevitable. Even the naysayers acknowledge that it is a matter of time.
We are all getting vested in cloud services, personally and professionally. Gartner, in its 2014 predictions, now rates the individual’s Private Cloud as a new disruptive technology trend. The Personal Consumerization of the Cloud is here.
In June 2013, IDC forecast that over the next three years, 14 million Cloud related jobs will be created globally ( 
If you are an IT person and looking for a sustainable and in-demand job, or if you are a current systems engineer, you should pay close attention. Cloud certifications and skills will be in great demand.

Mobile Devices and applications


As the Consumerization of IT takes hold, we must prepare for the tsunami of personal devices coming to invade our enterprises. People are doing more enterprise work on personal devices. Gartner estimates that for the first time, in 2013, more mobile device will be sold than desktops in the USA. A critical tipping point has been reached.
In this environment, who owns the devices, who manages it, who allows it access and even who has the authority to remove data from it – are all issues which IT will have to work through.
Several acronyms are the language of this new discussion. BYOD (Bring-your-own-device) is one of the more popular among them. Should the enterprise provide devices on which staff do their organizational work, or should staff bring their own?
A few years ago, we faced the same issue with phones. Initially, phones were handed out by the organization to those that needed them for work. Soon, phones became cheaper, more powerful and started coming in multitudes of flavors and operating systems. Users began demanding that they be allowed to use their “weapon of their choice”. Enterprises succumbed. And thus was born BYOP (bring your own phone). Today, using your own phone for email etc. is far more common than using enterprise supplied phones.
The same thing is happening with other devices. In fact, some among us have talked about the advent of a ‘cafeteria’ plan for technology, where the staff would be given a stipend to buy the technology of their choice on which to do their work. I can hear the question in your minds “Who will fix these hundreds if not thousands of devices, when something goes wrong with them?”
The simple answer is: The manufacturer of that device will fix it. In fact, none of these devices can be repaired by the IT staff even today. Or, at least they shouldn’t be. Do you want to void the warranty on an iPad by opening it, trying to “fix” it? Open an iPhone? Someone’s Smartwatch next? No, IT will not do this. In fact as BYOD takes hold, there will be less to fix, not more.
A whole new class of devices under the label of Internet of Things (IoT) is also headed our way. Mobile devices like smartphones and iPads are not the only things we will have to worry about (for more information on IoT read my blog at:
This leads to the other change in IT skill sets. As less Brake-Fix (the colloquial term used in some IT departments to indicate the work done to fix technology) is required - going forward, IT departments will be doing less of this kind of support.
The Help Desk will look different when there is less to fix. Help Desk staff should pay heed.
Gartner also predicts that an average enterprise will be managing a median of 25 mobile applications. A new breed of mobile application developers and vendors is going to find new customers.
Gartner also alerts us to a BYOA (bring-your-own-application) era. In this environment, users will be allowed to use the application of their choice, an extension of being able to use the device of their choice. For example, can a user use any email client, as long as they can access the enterprise email system? Why not? And yes, there are some things around security which will need to be worked out here.
But there are already big changes in this area. These will require a recalibration of IT skills and even policies.

Security and Collaboration

Being able to secure data, regardless of where it resides and where it is being requested from, is a monumental challenge for the transformative IT.
Into this mix comes a new vocabulary driven by MDM (mobile device management), VDI (virtual desktops), VDA (Virtual desktop applications) and a security fabric which allows control and management of disparate end points.
The need for rapid turnarounds now requires the use of new tools for the new real-time collaboration environments. For the users, this is a big change. The skill sets to be able to assist in such transformations and move enterprises away from the traditional flat-file architectures to cloud options, will be in great demand. This will not be easy.
IT staff with security certifications will also be in demand. Security will become an even more important requirement at most levels of the new IT hierarchy. The enterprise data will have to be secured in a myriad of new places, some of which the IT department will not control, at least not in the way we always have.

Big Data and mining

Nothing gets attention these days like Big Data and Business Intelligence (BI). These are the new buzzwords and there are big dollars at stake. 
With the cheap storage options now available, petabytes of data are now stored in servers. What does all this data mean? What can we do with it? And, does it provide answers to make the enterprise a better, more efficient, productive and competitive undertaking?
That is the world of Big Data. Thus far, it has been the realm of ‘specialists’ and data miners using complex BI tools to extract the nectar of the data. BI tools are expensive and require a lot of expertise.
But this too is changing. ‘Cognitive computing’, says Gartner, is when ordinary users will be able to use common ways to be able to get access to analytics and thus make the outcomes from that data far more actionable. In fact, the time when you should be able to use common search methodologies to mine complex data – is also not far away.
In many ways this question of how we make use of data to become more efficient and productive, is the new frontier. It is the place where technology changes its stripes. 
Technology must help in advancing the mission and profitability of the organization and move from being a cost center to becoming a full partner in the revenues and solutions aspects of the business.

So, what will IT do?

There are several areas in which this transformed IT will need to participate.
a)   Increasingly, IT will need to be Strategists; to become the bridge between what is technically possible and what needs to be solved. They will need to become the interlocutors when users are stymied by “How do we ask for something we don’t know exists?”
b)  IT will need to be able to extract and analyze business processes, and identify those that could benefit from technology solutions. This is more of a systems analyst and business analyst role and such certifications will likely remain in high demand.
c)   IT will be a full partner in the revenue producing elements of the business. IT as a cost center is becoming less important. The cost elements which are generally infrastructural, will be transitioning to third parties. This in turn will allow IT to focus on revenue producing projects and similar initiatives of the enterprise. IT budgets may also start dissipating into departmental and project budgets where such initiatives are traditionally 'owned'.
d)  Big Data and data mining will make IT and the Marketing functions draw ever closer. Currently, marketing is the primary consumer of Big Data. Already, in some organizations the largest part of a technology budget is also targeted to the needs of the marketing department. New titles like CMIO (Chief Marketing Information Officer) are emerging.
e)   Program management to deliver solutions on time and on budget, are also gaining more traction. Foundational certifications like Project Management will be more in demand. IT staff, who have been perennially blamed for over budget and delayed projects, will have to deliver on time and on budget, like any other unit in an enterprise.
f)    Mobility solutions and applications will proliferate. Delivery of content is changing to a different form factor and mobile will dominate. Desktop and server management, on the other hand, will decline.
g)  Security concerns arising from personal devices and even the Internet-of-Things (IeT) will become more prevalent. Management of mobile applications and security of data on all things connected to the internet - will become a core IT function.
h)   Analytics will get embedded into the user GUI. Actionable intelligence driven by easy to use interfaces will become a differentiator, and IT will be under pressure to deliver such solutions.
i)     BYOD (Bring your own device) will get a lot of traction and the active “brake-fix” support of user devices, will fade as the consumerization of computing accelerates, and ownership transfers from organizations to users. Budgets will be impacted by this change.

One thing is clear. IT stands at a transformational cross roads. A major change in the manner in which we use technology is underway. In many ways, this is the maturation of the promise of the internet.
Unless IT is able to reinvent itself, the future will be a difficult one. In my conversations, I am finding that the same resistance to change which inflicts some of the user community - is now afflicting the IT folks too. Since we are the original change agents, we really have no excuse. We should be good at pivoting and accepting and embracing change, shouldn’t we?
IT now needs more folks who have the technology knowledge but also have a strong suit of business management skill sets, and the ability to bring the two elements together.  

The age of the Business Technologist is upon us.

Monday, August 19, 2013

‘Change’ in Your Wallet? Bitcoins and the Future of Money

When credit cards first arrived, there were legions of skeptics who were not impressed. Today, cash comprises less than 7% of the money supply in the US. Most of us carry multiple credit cards and a world without them is almost unthinkable.


More recently, online bill payment has suffered from the same malady. The fact that banks routinely provide this service for free, and sending a check in the mail actually costs you money in stamps, envelopes, checks etc. is not enough. The cynics are adamant, and there are plenty of them around.


Get ready. Another change is in the offing.


It is still early days, but a revolution is in the making. Names like Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ripple, Namecoin, PPCoin, Terracoin, DigitalCoin etc. are entering our consciousness and the media is beginning to follow with interest.


You know it is getting serious when Congress and the Feds take note. Last week, on August 13, 2013 the Senate Committee on Homeland Security announced plans to probe Bitcoin, the digital currency, and the regulatory regime (or lack thereof) that governs it. 


For the moment, let’s answer some basic questions on Digital Currency and how it works.

What is digital (and crypto) currency?

Digital currency is electronic money that acts as alternative currency. This currency is not produced by any government-endorsed central banks. But it is real money and can be used to buy goods and services.

Cryptocurrency is a type of digital currency and Bitcoin, is an example of a digital cryptocurrency.

More about Bitcoins.

Bitcoin is the most famous of the cryptocurriencies. It first made an appearance in 2009 and was created by Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym for a person or group, whose identity still remains unknown.

Once acquired, Bitcoin resides in digital wallets and is paid from there. You don’t need a computer for that.


Bitcoin has no regulator and only exists in a peer-to-peer network that is verified by its users.  (More on that below). Bitcoin lets you send money to anyone online, anywhere in the world, and for less than one cent per transaction. So, it has very low overhead and virtually no extra charges.


Bitcoin has speculative value (like other regular currencies) and can also be changed into other major currencies. The price of a Bitcoin spiked to an all-time high of $266 on April 10, 2013. It currently hovers at $ 114.


How do you get Bitcoins?

There are two ways to get Bitcoins. You can create them, or buy them in the open market.  Most of us reading this will buy them with our “normal” money. 


But Bitcoins are first created by a process called mining.



What is mining? Think of this as the ledger the old guy atop the pulpit in Mary Poppins has at the bank.  All transactions with Bitcoins must be captured in this one big electronic “book”.  Each new transaction is crossed-checked in the “book” to verify that Jack indeed has the 200 Bitcoins he says he has and that he is now giving them to Corporation Z (in return for some service or goods).  Once the transaction is verified, it gets added in the “book”.  And the process continues.


For the technically inclined, a little more detail in the blue font below:


·         Mining is a process which collects Bitcoin transactions from the internet (e.g. John pays Susan 5 Bitcoins etc.) and bundles them into blocks.  Since there is no central authority, the transactions have to be verified in a peer-to-peer network of computers.

·         These blocks strung together, create one authoritative block chain which does not allow any duplicate blocks, and is a list of all transactions approved to date.

·         The way Bitcoin makes sure there is only one block chain is by making blocks really hard to produce. So instead of just being able to make blocks at will, miners have to compute a special cryptographic hash of the block that meets specific criteria.

·         Mining for Bitcoins involves an enormous amount of computer power. (Recently the Australian Broadcasting Corporation caught an employee using the company's servers to generate Bitcoins without permission). Bitcoin has reached a stage where miners are using special machines that are useless for anything else.


·         The difficulty of the criteria for the hash is continually adjusted based on how frequently blocks are being found. So, it doesn’t get easier. This also allows Bitcoins to be produced in a predictable and limited rate.

·         When you do hit the lottery and find a hash “good enough to count”, you get rewarded with Bitcoins.

·         Bitcoin circulation will not exceed 21 million and a little over 11 million have already been mined. The prediction is that block #6,929,999, which will take the total number of coins in circulation to its maximum level of 20,999,999.9769, will not be generated until 2140.

·         If 21 million coins doesn’t sound like a lot for an entire currency, then consider how a single Bitcoin can be divided. Most currencies have two decimal places e.g. $1.00 is 100 cents. Bitcoin is different – it has eight decimal places. With 21 million Bitcoins in circulation, that’s a total of 2,100,000,000,000,000 smallest ‘units’ of currency when the network is operating at full capacity. 

All of this sounds like a lot of geeky work, and frankly, it is.

What if you just wanted to go out and ‘buy’ some Bitcoins? Well, there are several currency exchanges which allow you to buy Bitcoins.

These include Mt. GoxBitstampCampBXIntersango, Virtex  etc. 


What can I actually buy with Bitcoins?

Merchants around the world accept these currencies. From bakeries in San Francisco, a sock manufacturer in Massachusetts, online casinos to even a dentist in Finland. They all accept Bitcoins.

·         An increasing number of physical stores, restaurants and other venues accept Bitcoins as well.  You can find lots of Bitcoin-related services on the Bitcoin Wiki.

·         You can check out Bitcoin's largest online auction house at

·         Turn your Bitcoins into gift cards from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and many more at

·         Or buy music, ebooks and other downloadable content at


Is all this safe?

The source code for Bitcoin is free and is public, which means that just about every hacker in the world has had a crack at it. And thus far, they’ve all come to the same conclusion: surprisingly, it really works.

But this does not mean there have not been Bitcoin thefts.

·         On 19 June 2011, a security breach of the Mt.Gox Bitcoin exchange caused the nominal price of a Bitcoin to fraudulently drop to one cent on the Mt.Gox exchange, after a hacker allegedly used credentials from an Mt.Gox auditor's compromised computer illegally to transfer a large number of Bitcoins to himself.

·         In September 2012, Bitfloor, a Bitcoin exchange, also reported being hacked, with 24,000 Bitcoins being stolen.

·         On 3 April 2013, Instawallet, a web-based wallet provider, was hacked resulting in the theft of over 35,000Bitcoins worth $4.6 million

·         Just this past week, Google has confirmed the existence of a critical Android flaw that put Bitcoin wallets created on Android devices at risk of theft. 

·         Now Systech, a high profile digital forensics company is offering a Bitcoin tracing service.



Here is where this gets more interesting (and why they are becoming so popular…)

In July 2013, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twins best known for their part in the creation of Facebook, filed a proposal with securities regulators that would allow any investor to trade Bitcoins, just as if they were stocks. The twins also own 1% of all Bitcoins that have been mined to date. They are betting on Bitcoins. 

When Cyprus (and then Spain) went through financial doldrums earlier in the year and the government was threatening to take over the bank accounts of ordinary citizens, Bitcoin use spiked.

Even with trade sanctions, there is one currency in Iran that has kept its value and can be used to buy goods from abroad: Bitcoins.

Bitcoins are also the currency of choice for a number of illegal activities. This is in fact the reason for Congress’s interest in Bitcoins.

The Silk Road, is a marketplace hidden in an anonymized part of the web called Tor. On June 1, 2011, Adrian Chen published an article headlined “The Underground Website Where You Can Buy Any Drug Imaginable”. Carnegie Mellon Professor Nicholas Christin studied the Silk Road and concluded that law enforcement authorities could stop it by disrupting its use of Bitcoin. All of this caused an uproar and Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer wrote to the Attorney General and demanded that the Silk Road be taken down (a futile request in this world of globalized networks).

Bitcoins still are the only currency accepted on the Silk Road and with online arms merchant Executive Outcomes too.

And finally, Bitcoins are anonymous, so no TAXES. Think about that….the Cayman’s and their safe-haven cousins are all paying very close attention.

What about other variations of digital currencies:

There are several other variations of Bitcoin, each experimenting with some of the shortfalls of Bitcoin.

Litecoin is less dependent on the activity of a small number of dedicated miners with expensive equipment, and allows a larger pool of miners to compete. It is also able to validate transactions in a few minutes, much faster than Bitcoin (which can take 10-60 minutes).


PPCoin’s design is intended to gradually phase out conventional mining altogether. Instead these are awarded in a kind of lottery.


You discount digital currency at your own risk. Admittedly this is still an experiment. But, a lot of good ideas start as a techie experiment. The internet itself, was one such experiment. Digital currencies are not going away. They are changing and adapting to the customer and even to the regulators. There is a desire to play in the mainstream of payment options. Traditional financial product companies are looking on with great interest and even perhaps even a little angst.

Could Digital Currency put the makers of leather wallets out of business? Time will tell.