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  • October 01 2002, 1:00am EDT

Why is infrastructure in the computer industry so difficult and under-appreciated? Everywhere you turn, infrastructure is either ignored or put down. Venture capitalists abhor infrastructure. They simply won't invest in it. End users won't buy infrastructure – they don't see immediate results so infrastructure doesn't ever make it to the top of their buy lists. Only glitzy, superficial things attract their attention. Developers and technicians avoid infrastructure because it is messy. It requires getting your hands dirty and working on projects that take a long time and have a payback that is difficult to determine. Infrastructure projects are always subject to cancellation in favor of some more elegant project.

Yet, at the end of the day, it is infrastructure that makes the world go 'round. Ask Larry Ellison and Oracle what they think of infrastructure. Ask Bill Gates and Microsoft what they think of infrastructure. Ask IBM how much maintenance revenue they make on CICS, VSAM and IMS. The glory days for these technologies have passed, but they are workhorse technologies that nevertheless run the businesses of the world.

Given the reality that infrastructure sets the stage and is mandatory for the success of all technology, something is amiss here. It is similar to the measles and polio vaccinations we get as young children. The vaccination, like infrastructure, is not very glamorous. It hurts a bit when you get it. After the shot is given, it is not obvious that anything particularly profound has happened; but considering the alternative – a terrible disease that can ruin or even take life – something remarkable did happen, even if it was hardly apparent.

What constitutes infrastructure in the world of technology? The basics are:

  • Hardware: the processor that makes things run.
  • Storage: the place where information is stored.
  • Operating systems: MVS, NT, UNIX, etc.
  • DBMS: DB2, IMS, Oracle, Sybase, Teradata, etc.
  • Communications management: the Internet, CICS, DC software, etc.

Several issues surround infrastructure. Some of those issues are:

  • Continuity: Will what I have built today become outdated?
  • Scalability: Will the system operate under a set of larger parameters?
  • Extendability: Will there be a new set of requirements that technology will not be able to meet tomorrow?
  • Vendor longevity: Will the infrastructure vendor go out of business?
  • Vendor responsiveness: Will the vendor's priorities change? What happens when new features are needed and the vendor doesn't respond?

Infrastructure by itself simply doesn't do anything, or at least anything that the end user can see. To describe an infrastructure accomplishment, your user would need to have a vivid imagination. Furthermore, your end user has to pay for something that can only be imagined. This approach to satisfying the needs of your end user can only go so far.
Another pitfall of infrastructure is its complexity. Because infrastructure is so versatile, it is complex. There are so many ways that a basic piece of infrastructure can be used that installing, configuring and implementing infrastructure is always a daunting task. Keeping the infrastructure running – efficiently and happily – is an even more complex task. System load factors change. System performance requirements change. The demands of the end user change. Data that was being used heavily one day is not used at all the next. New advances make old technology obsolete, and there is a constant need for upgrade. Keeping up with the complexity of the infrastructure is not a task for the faint-hearted.

Then there is the issue of cost. Infrastructure is expensive. There are ways to mitigate the costs of infrastructure; but however you slice it, the cost of infrastructure is high.

Some of the most interesting opportunities in technology for the next decade involve infrastructure. Some of the most promising are:

  • Meta data: In a world of distributed processing, meta data takes on an entirely new and different role. Now meta data is needed to act as the glue that connects the many different components of a distributed environment.
  • Analytics: Users are now demanding more sophisticated analytic applications. Analytic tool vendors who don't make this transition are vulnerable to disappearing.
  • Mobile processing: The world of computing is being extended. With that extension comes the opportunity for new market share, new sources of revenue and the extension of existing sources of revenue.

The biggest opportunity for infrastructure comes in the world of integration. Integration of data is the dirtiest, most complex, most daunting aspect of technology that has ever been seen in the world of IT; but with integration comes great promise. With integration, entirely different major portions of the corporation can work in unison. With integration, the customer can be viewed and treated in a 360-degree manner. With integration, marketplace anticipation is a real possibility.
In short, the infrastructure required to support integration is very challenging; but the investment made in integration is worth itself ten times over.

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