Trust in technology

The budgetary guillotine is hanging heavily over IT departments in all sectors and industries, and for many months to come little else is going to feature in the conversations of IT directors and managers.

But at the most recent Information Age roundtable debate on ‘Confronting IT complexity’, it was with palpable relief that the assembled IT decision makers took a break from the hand-wringing and lamentations on the state of the economy and returned to the topic of technology.

That is not to say that the economic challenges facing businesses are letting up at all. It is more that those challenges have been discussed, dissected and damned – and their impact on IT established – and now it is time to get on with the job. That means the corporate data centre is once again in the cross hairs.

A constant source of complexity and cost, it is small wonder that for many companies, the idea of outsourcing the data centre has such appeal. Unfortunately, handing the server farm to a third party does not always stop the headaches, as the operational strategy chief of a major newspaper publisher revealed at the debate which was co-hosted by IT infrastructure management software company Avocent.

Soon after passing responsibility for the data centre over to a hosting provider, he recalled, it became clear that the business had made certain assumptions about the level of service they would receive that turned out to be just that.

“The head of service delivery, for example, had mistakenly assumed that a ‘hard-down’ error would be resolved immediately,” he said, adding that in the fast-paced world of newspaper publishing, any significant delay to getting the paper out could spell disaster.

Secondly, he said, part of his job now involves trying to prevent the data centre from creeping back into the building. Project teams will occassionally set up an internal server here and there, but with the number of machines gradually creeping up, “it’s becoming a new data centre!” he said.

Attendees discussed the emerging data centre outsourcing option of the day, namely cloud computing. There remains, of course, trepidation. As the IT solutions director of a market research firm put it, “Our intellectual property is our business. It would be difficult to imagine putting it out onto the Internet.”

There were also system performance concerns surrounding the cloud. “Once you move systems onto the public Internet, your quality of service agreements become ‘We’ll do the best we can,’” said one attendee.

An IT and intellectual property lawyer in attendance sounded a note of caution. Entrusting business critical data to an Internet-based service provider necessitates careful contract negotiation. She pointed to recent developments on the consumer web to show the kinds of issues that could well emerge around cloud computing. “Facebook tried [unsuccessfully] to claim copyright over the content its users had uploaded,” she said, adding that assuring intellectual property ownership is essential for cloud engagements.

But for an IT security expert from a financial institution in attendance, the potential cost benefit of cloud computing is such that businesses may well tolerate some relaxation of security principles. “The potential cost savings from cloud computing could certainly change the way companies feel about security controls,” he said. That may well cause problems further down the line, he added. But at the same time, cloud computing could also make security precautions, such as back-up and redundancy, cheaper.

The mood at the roundtable stopped short of being optimistic. But it was clear that the belief that judiciously applied information technology can affect business change has not been shaken by the economic adversities of the day.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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