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Want to build a business? You need an IT ecosystem.

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Just thirty years ago, innovation in almost any category was measured in years, but today it’s measured in weeks or months. If you were to focus on information technology specifically you could even argue that change can occur in days — and that cycle will continue to accelerate.

But adapting and innovating in IT requires that you have a platform strategy that allows for heterogeneous adoption of technology at each layer of infrastructure. You also need simplified, cost-effective, real-time access to a wide range of partners and solution providers, otherwise known as your technology ecosystem. This group of providers will be a veritable marketplace of vendors that are proprietary and open source, but whom together create a combination of technologies and services that allow the buyer to mix and match for any solution requirement.

The technology ecosystem has always been important. Even in the days when a minority of companies had a single mainframe, you still needed parts, skills, power, data centers, tools, and ideas, etc. But that ecosystem was smaller and moved more slowly. The technology ecosystems of the 60s through the 90s tended to change over months or years, and our systems from then were more likely to be from a small handful of vendors. This simplified provider environment reduced dependence on an ecosystem of otherwise unrelated partners and vendors, but guaranteed your dependence on the one.

That was then, this is now.

The difference today, and going forward, is that technology is rapidly moving to a much more agile adoption, development, operating and use model. Buyers today can identify and use cloud-based infrastructure or obtain a few licenses of a Software-as-a-Service delivered application in a matter of hours. Aside from cloud-based services, there are virtual platforms, appliances, internally developed applications and myriad customer devices that all need to interact, but can change almost overnight.

Some would argue that the sheer complexity of the ecosystem today screams for CIOs to try to create homogenous infrastructure environments. However, the very fact that we’re making IT solutions more portable and readily adaptable means that we must plan for the ability to support multi-vendor solutions at any layer of the technical infrastructure, from the CPU, through to platform as a service.

The rapid delivery of new solutions means that companies will no longer wait patiently for “their” provider to catch up to major innovation leaps. The only way to stay in front of your competition is to grease the technical infrastructure skids with strong management platforms and clear adoption, ownership, and orchestration strategies.

Many software, cloud, and hardware providers in today’s market would argue that they offer a strong ecosystem of partners, but I think the future ecosystem will be as open as possible and also offer the customer access to a wide variety of cloud, network and other services within the confines of a single data center. Think of your IT ecosystem as the local shops near your downtown flat, easy to access and well understood. However, if you’re downtown ecosystem was like the technology ecosystem you would have five coffee shops, three butchers, six shoe stores and so on from which to select goods and services. .

The open ecosystem

An open ecosystem allows for you to select the technology or service provider you like when the opportunity presents itself. It’s an environment where the customer has broad access to vendors and services related to any portion of the infrastructure stack, including wide area networking services and the data center capacity.

Under the old way of building IT, managers built it once, built it to last, and then got fired when it didn’t last. The new IT calls for managers to build it fast, possibly fail fast, and then build it again.

An open ecosystem means that in most cases you shouldn’t be spending years putting in a new technology architecture or solution. If it’s that complex or limited in its ability to adapt new technology you should be using a partner’s infrastructure such as an IaaS or PaaS provider solution.

There are also many options for building private cloud infrastructure, especially for larger businesses, but the focus should be on making it as open as possible. If you can’t taste test an application or new platform environment in a matter of days or weeks, you’re doing something wrong. Openness also helps if you need to move your work, because you want to have as many destinations to choose from as you can.

Many providers under one roof.

But even among open ecosystems there are important differences to be aware of. Ideally you will find an open ecosystem with a large number of different network, cloud, software and hardware providers under one umbrella. This allows the customer to make decisions around adoption of new technology quickly and efficiently. So instead of providing access to one or two bandwidth providers, the ideal ecosystem provides access to big and small players, and can play them against each other to get the best price and services for customers. In reality bringing together the combined customer and supplier community creates greater opportunities for both sides, in effect, a win-win.

It shouldn’t stop with bandwidth, either. An ecosystem should have not only the option of different hardware, and support services, but also different cloud service providers. If a customer wants to get cloud computing from a vendor, the ecosystem provider should invite that provider in. And if someone wants to build their own cloud, the ecosystem provider and data center provider should have an array of choices available for a customer to choose from.

The ideal delivery platform for this ecosystem is a data center provider who can create an environment that supports the needs of enterprise computing, while also lowering the costs and barriers to entry for ecosystem partners. This is an environment that removes all your risks associated with disaster avoidance, regulatory concerns, capacity and security. That location should have access to national freeways and airports as well as local government support that will help facilitate worker relocation and education, while also providing considerations for your hardware taxation risks.

It’s tough to find one place where all the above are available to the customer, but they are out there. Having these resources readily available is like having a Home Depot and a Lowes move in next to your house the day before you start a big home project. No matter what tool or resource you need, it’s all right there, immediately available, with competition, quantity and variety.

In this environment building a business that requires IT – or rethinking your existing IT doesn’t seem so daunting: With all these resources available, you virtually eliminate the risk of being forced into a “pragmatic” (read: bad but necessary) decision. You are free to experiment once, twice, three times, and then put it into production, without most of the historical baggage like “high network costs”, “no skilled staff” or a data center that is “out of capacity,” which have traditionally driven IT decisions.

So the increasing complexity and speed at which IT is moving doesn’t have to be something to worry about, instead look at it as an opportunity to roll with the technological changes without becoming too invested in a closed ecosystem.

Mark Thiele is executive VP of Data Center Tech at Switch, the operator of the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. Thiele blogs at SwitchScribe and at Data Center Pulse, where is also president and founder. .He can be found on Twitter at @mthiele10.

Image courtesy of Flickr user john-norris.

19 Responses to “Want to build a business? You need an IT ecosystem.”

  1. natishalom

    Mark, Good read, Thanks!

    I believe that PaaS holds a lot of promise to deliver the kind of openness that you described without exposing the complexity that is often associated with the integration of the different pieces together.

    I wrote a detailed post on what seem to be the next wave in the PaaS evolution toward a more open PaaS environment that brings together the benefit of control and flexibility of DevOps automation tools and the simplicity of PaaS together.

    You can find the reference to this post here:

    I’d be happy to hear your thought on where do you see PaaS fit into this mix.

  2. loved the comment “The new IT calls for managers to build it fast, possibly fail fast, and then build it again. ” it perfectly sums up the IT industry especially the bad bits.

    Innovation in IT hasn’t been measured in timelines for years, its measured in sales. Nowdays most products are release with bugs just to get the product out and on sale.

    The rest of the article went on and on and I gave up as it was full of theoretical gibberish lacking in “real” substance

    • Sales has nothing to do with “innovation”. People and technology have everything to do with it. I’m sorry you didn’t appreciate the rest of the article, but it’s actually real and working today, so to call it theoretical is false.
      Also, it would seem you’re appreciation of my comment “The new IT calls for managers to build it fast, possibly fail fast, and then build it again. ” misses the point entirely. The benefit of modern IT solutions vs. old is that you now can taste test, and retry quickly and that’s a good thing.

  3. I think you are conflating two very different concepts. Using cloud based services is becoming a part of someone else’s ecosystem, not creating your own. Creating an infrastructure that allows your customers, suppliers, vendors and partners to easily plug into YOU is 180 degrees different from using technologies in your own shop that are easily pluggable together for your own purposes.

    • Actually, this is mostly one concept, but depending on who your partners and providers are they could be “full solution” members of the eco-system (a cloud provider) or they could be component members (the server layer). Also, I’m definitely not talking about internal or external IT, this is about the entire ecosystem of providers (internal IT, Outsourcers, H/W & S/W providers). By having a combination of proximity (resources in a shared facility like a hoster or co-lo) and the associated improved communication you stand a much better chance of getting the best solutions, quickly and cost effectively.

  4. I was a Network Administrator years ago in my business career before cloud computing and we offered our users the typical applications to use. Outlook, VPN, file shares, office, chat programs, client/server, cell phone/beeper/pager, etc. All that seems so “old school” nowadays. Of course this was a tremendous improvement over dumb terminal/amber screens with mainframe, no e-mail, dial-up modems and dot matrix printers.

    IT folks have such a tremendous opportunity to make really meaningful systems these days. I’m jealous. Seize the moment!

    • You’re so right. I was there in the day of making Windows & Networking fit and work on a 40 MB PC. There is so much opportunity now, as IT leaders we can’t afford to get caught in the downward spiral of pragmatic decisions on vendor and technology selection that is such a big part of legacy IT.

  5. Prasun Sinha

    I am in complete agreement. Organizations need to embrace this to be able to nimbly address the changing landscape. I am seeing this trend more ad more at many of my customers. Open source and cloud computing makes a wide array of choices available. But to take advantage of that an organization needs to have the right architecture and an open mind to explore multiple providers each bringing in its unique capabilities and experience. A customer of mine is currently building an application that is using 15+ open source components and has smart cloud capabilities with auto-scaling options to take advantage of three different public cloud providers in addition to their private cloud. Solutions like this have now become de jure.

  6. That’s just a very long self promoting advertisement. If you want to start a business do it but don’t start by spending all the money on IT & DataCenter infrastructure when you don’t need to. That would be like saying you want to go into the hotel business and blowing everything on a reservation system when you haven’t paid for the beds…

    • Self promotion or not, the fact remains that the ecosystem is critical to agile and cost effective IT. Also, I am advocating that companies avoid spending large sums on CapEx. Instead they should put their investment in the company and time into finding the best ecosystem.

      • So does this mean Switch should outsource it’s own infrastructure and just be a reseller/aggregator of other Co-Lo services? Or that’s “no software” slogan should apply to their own company?

  7. Gary-Yau Chan

    having ONE communication center system is really expensive and is not very flexible/dynamic

    having an open IT ecosystem would require API compatibilities across new and old technologies

    for small businesses, what possible solutions do they have but else to work even harder?

    • Hi Gary-Yau, It’s not one communication center, but rather one hosting/co-lo provider (potentially with multiple locations). APIs will always be an area of opportunity, but the method of technology adoption higher/lower in the stack should be driven by the needs of the business in combination with the abilities of the IT staff. The real opportunity is the rapid ability to adopt cloud solutions (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, Bigdata) in an environment that will allow you to quickly acquire and then discontinue. Your connections would be cross-connects in an internal network, not costly WAN connections with long term contract requirements.