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IT treads lightly from traditional to digital business

Many IT pros resist the fast-moving technology train, but risk getting left behind. Learn how to create a digital business without crashing and burning.

LAS VEGAS -- Aligning old school IT norms with new ways of developing adaptive, modern digital business applications continues to vex many traditional IT shops today.

IT pros know that current practices are not a good fit for a digital business, yet they have a million reasons why they resist change. But experts at the Gartner Data Center, Infrastructure & Operations Management Conference this week urged IT pros to take small innovative steps and learn to accept more risk in parallel with existing efforts to support their systems of record.

Gartner's term for this process is bimodal development, in which older technology is referred to as mode 1, and the newer innovations are mode 2. Both might exist side by side for years and indeed, one may never entirely supplant the other, according to Ray Paquet, a Gartner analyst.

One concept that hurts innovative thinking is that IT pros and vendors still view technology as products, and replace products in cycles, as opposed to coming up with a plan to deliver apps with an overall end goal.

New technologies, such as cloud computing, and software-defined networks (SDN), for example, change the way products are bought and managed. Provisioning times can be cut to minutes instead of weeks. This alters IT staffing alignments, because once isolated teams now must work together, and more scripting skills are needed across the board.

By 2017, 75% of organizations will be bimodal, Paquet said, though he expects half of those organizations to "make a mess" of it. But try they must because it's the way to confront and address the range of digital business requirements.

In the case of SDN, enterprises can move from managing individual devices to managing an entire mesh from a single control plane. It's powerful, and highly automated, but Paquet also characterized bimodal development as a "giant loaded gun" because if an enterprise doesn't proceed cautiously, it can make colossal mistakes.

For most IT shops, the idea of adding any risk at all to the daily workload is met with predictable caution, which makes sense given that IT is still considered responsible and accountable when anything goes awry.

"We know we have to go there eventually, but we know it will change how people work together," said a director of infrastructure operations at a Canadian university. "We'll have to look at our teams and come up with a plan."

Other companies are still trying to sort what technologies are really old -- Gartner's mode 1 -- versus what are truly new -- Gartner's mode 2. Some relatively new sounding technology, such as converged infrastructure, is considered mode 1. It's still a traditional way of getting a job done. SDN changes the game, so it's mode 2.

The next step for IT pros is to sort out what's really real within the new.

"We're trying to decipher marketing from real SDN," said Macy Seymour, vice president of infrastructure at InnovAge, a Denver-based health care provider. The company will take its first steps into SDN in a year or two when it installs VMware's NSX across its virtualized infrastructure.

One analyst said he thinks vendors and service providers could take a bigger role helping to educate IT pros, especially given the abstract nature of Gartner's advice.  Rather than just selling a product, or helping to keep an existing system running efficiently, vendors could do more to explain to customers how their data centers should look in three or five years, said Matthew Boon, a Gartner analyst.

"I don't think that anyone is doing that really," Boon said.

Companies all have some strategic thinkers. But the sales teams that interface with IT pros are mostly thinking about their quarterly numbers, he said.

Vendors might help today's IT pros work strategically with departments in their own companies that have growing influence on how the IT budget gets spent, like marketing or research and development. IT could demonstrate to marketing, for example, how technology might help them get new customers or increase business.

But not every IT pro is on board with the idea that vendors should dispense strategic advice to enterprises.

"The problem is, what if they are wrong?" said one project manager at a large private university in Pennsylvania. "There isn't much trust there, and nobody likes vendor lock in."

Such risk aversion is counter to what's expected in the new world. IT pros could investigate something to death and let another six months fly by without getting anything done. In the new world, failure is accepted, even the new normal, said John Morency, a Gartner analyst, in his keynote. But it's not a badge of honor that many IT pros in traditional enterprises are in a rush to wear.

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