Sunday, February 13, 2011

The 110-year-old light bulb is a little too much like today’s IT

Last weekend the San Francisco Chronicle had a big write-up on a crazy fluke of technology: a light bulb that has been working for over a century without burning out.

The celebrity bulb hangs from a ceiling, high above a Livermore, Calif., fire department, and has baffled anyone trying to figure out why it is still functioning after 110 years. It obviously does not have the same manufacturer as the light bulbs in my upstairs hallway – it seems that at least one of those needs replacing every month.

The curious part about the “centennial bulb” – and the part that strikes me as having some relevance to the IT systems we know and interact with on a daily basis – is that no one knows why it’s still working.

And, given that it is still working, no one is going to interrupt its operation to find out why.

That sounds a lot like how IT has traditionally been run. There’s a bunch of hard work and complicated technological details that go into getting a certain system or application up and running. The good news is: getting it up and running in the first place is often the hardest part.

The more successful applications are the ones that then keep running with a minimum of effort, the fewest upgrades, and least changes required. In fact, once something is doing its job, the ROI for an upgrade of an underlying hardware or software infrastructure component is, frankly, really low in the eyes of the users (vendors will often beg to differ, of course). You really don’t want to touch it, lest you break something.

The Golden Rules of IT, starting with “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it”

Amusingly, that same topic came up in a conversation I was having with analyst and ZDNet blogger Dan Kusnetzky. He tied our conversation back to the “Golden Rules of IT,” which I first saw when Dan published them (for a second time, apparently) back in 2007. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” was merely the beginning of his list.

Dan included inarguable IT wisdom like “Don’t touch it, you’ll break it” and “If you touched it and it broke, it will take longer to fix and, in all likelihood, cost more than you think to fix.” Which, of course, leads to “Don’t make major changes unless people are screaming!” And, finally, that means settling for “good enough is good enough.”

But, as pithy as they are, those “Golden Rules” lead to really bad IT choices, I would argue.

When Golden Rules become bad advice

Thinking back to the long-lived Livermore light bulb, I can’t argue with the fact that it’s still working. But is it doing anything useful for the fire station other than attracting curious tourists from China, Germany, and Fresno?

Nope. In fact, it’s barely accomplishing its intended purpose – giving off light. It began life as a 60-watt bulb, but is only producing 4 watts at this point – about the same as a night light. Not so good if you’re trying to find the keys to the fire truck.

If you’re running an IT shop that’s supporting a rapidly changing business, this kind of technology nostalgia and tolerance for something that doesn’t seem to be making the grade seems quaint at best. More likely, it’s exactly the kind of thing that, in the end, is going to put your IT systems -- and your business – in jeopardy.

In IT, you would rather have “new idea” light bulbs turning on

In my post about how cloud computing lets organizations focus on “good enough” IT – being able to try out things quickly and effectively, without having to worry about every bell and every whistle – I’m essentially arguing for the opposite of the centennial light bulb. (Sorry, Livermore.)

Just because the old thing hasn’t broken doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try out something new. Tolerating a creaky, old system just because it hasn’t come crashing down yet is not pointing you in the right direction. “Good enough” is not something you settle for, but in fact an approach that gives you the freedom to try things, and to do so quickly. I can’t really speak for the light bulb industry, but the pace of IT technology change is so fast that you really have to be paying attention to what else is possible. And even if you aren’t, you can probably bet your competition is.

In fact, I’m arguing, cloud computing is perfect for this sort of experimentation. Cloud lets you dip your toe in and see how it goes. Cloud lets you try a new way of resourcing (or architecting) a given application. Cloud also means you only have to pay for what you use, when you use it. Experimentation like this is how innovation starts – and how new light bulbs go on in peoples’ heads in the first place. I’m betting it will lead to something better.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a bit of quirky history along the way. Those looking for a thrill-a-minute can check out the 24-hour-a-day webcam pictures of the centennial bulb doing its thing at