Is the enterprise ready for web-scale IT?

The journey to web-scale IT will not be easy for most enterprises. It won’t be a straight line but will look more like a roadmap with many twists and turns.

Gartner defines web-scale IT as “a system-oriented architectural pattern that enables the rapid and scalable development and delivery of web-based IT services leveraging agile, lean and continuous principles.” The idea is that cloud companies have built environments based on open source technologies and are using that to very rapidly build and provision infrastructure to meet their changing computing needs. 

Gartner further recommends that enterprises should consider adopting this strategy to more effectively compete against Amazon, Google and others who can offer the same services to enterprise functional departments.  Based on the current maturity of the enterprise data centre, a lot more than expertise stands in the way of achieving this goal.

The main issue standing in the way of enterprise adoption of web-scale IT is culture.    

Cloud companies have built their infrastructure over a short number of years from the ground up around rapidly provisioned open source technologies and a DevOps philosophy based on flexible, scalable, rapidly integrated applications and agile processes.  Enterprises have built their infrastructure over many years around chargeable over-provisioned capacity, support contracts, large monolithic enterprise applications and strict processes to govern the use of IT services.

A brand new philosophy

Over-provisioned capacity is actually a central philosophy of cloud environments as well, but the fundamental difference is who pays for the capacity and when. 

In the traditional enterprise, when a department requests a new application, IT specifies compute, storage and network resources that will meet the needs for at least a year so they don’t need to acquire more capital resources for that project until the next fiscal year.  The entire capital budget for the project is charged back to the department installing the application at the time of purchase, or allocated across multiple departments, should the application be a corporate-wide application.  

In a cloud environment, the organisation invests in the capital necessary to meet overall projected needs, but actual chargeback to the department for that capital equipment doesn’t occur until the resource is used, and the actual amount of compute, storage and network used is measured to the smallest degree.  In this case, web-scale IT in the enterprise requires a brand new IT funding and chargeback philosophy, which requires a different kind of CEO and CFO mentality.

A fundamental difference between web-scale IT and traditional enterprise IT is in how they spend their support dollars.  According to Gartner’s definition, web-scale IT organisations are investing in free open source technology and providing their own support. This is fundamentally different than traditional enterprises, who even when they began investing in open source technology (such as Linux), did so through companies who could offer commercial support contracts.  In fact, in a recent survey, ESG says that enterprises spend 62 per cent of their IT budget on these support contracts. In order to truly shift to Web-scale IT, this 62 per cent of the budget will be critical in order to staff the expertise needed to assume support in-house for these new technologies.

This is one addiction that will be extremely difficult for enterprises to break. 

The applications that web-scale IT infrastructures support in cloud companies are also dramatically different than those in traditional enterprises. A true cloud company may only have a handful of core applications to support, while typical large enterprises can easily have more than a thousand applications. 

Bridging the cultural divide

Finally, due to the age of many enterprise companies and the need to “do more with less” in terms of IT staff, many IT organisations have relied heavily on strict processes to govern the purchase and allocation of IT resources. A cultural divide between functional departments and IT has grown over many years and has become instituted in many cultures.  Bridging this divide and replacing it with a culture of trust and shared innovation between IT and functions will simply fail in many companies. 

Traditional enterprises have a long road ahead of them on their journey to web-scale IT. The cultural changes they need to make will be significant and not all companies will be successful in making them.  Likely, there will be many different types of adoption that occur based on each enterprise’s ability to make these cultural changes. 

The most progressive enterprises are already making these changes, but their degree of adoption of web-scale IT is still very low.  The vast majority of enterprises will struggle for many years, create top down programs with lots of funding and fancy slogans, and will still fail.  This isn’t a program it’s a way of life. 

In other words, it isn’t worth the effort for the vast majority of enterprises to even attempt this thing called web-scale IT, right? Wrong.  The reality is, and even Gartner acknowledges this, most enterprises will implement a hybrid approach to web-scale IT.  This will enable them to evaluate which aspects can be most easily implemented and which will require more radical change, or will simply not work in their environments. 

For enterprises who are struggling with a starting point on the journey to web-scale IT, a counterintuitive proposal is to ask your current vendors.  This may seem odd given one of the central tenets of web-scale IT is to move away from the very vendors whom you have been paying large support contracts to.  On the other hand, these same vendors are investing in new ways to provide assistance to their customers on this journey. 

Check whether your server and storage vendors are investing in open compute infrastructure.  Ask these same vendors, or your operating system vendor, how they can help you implement an OpenStack-based cloud infrastructure.  Look at the reference architectures these vendors have published for Hadoop clusters.

The journey to web-scale IT will not be easy for most enterprises.  It won’t be a straight line, but will look more like a roadmap with many twists and turns.  Cultural changes will not occur overnight, and some enterprises will be unable to make deep enough cultural changes to implement a pure web-scale IT infrastructure.  However, these same enterprises will undoubtedly be successful integrating some aspects of web-scale IT that make sense and fit into their culture.  If there is one thing that will help these enterprises break the chains that bind them, it is witnessing their competition make gains against them by making these moves ahead of them.

Mike Jochimsen is senior director of product marketing at Emulex.