February 10, 2012
Enterprise 4.0: IT’s ongoing re-platforming

As we look back at the history of computing, it’s clear that each wave ushered in new rounds of groundbreaking technology that birthed new companies, increased productivity, gave rise to IT, empowered businesses and changed the world. In this blog post, I’ll take a look at early technology waves, reflect on how they changed IT and look at the most recent trends and the opportunities they usher in for innovation.

We are experiencing a number of shifts and a true evolution in enterprise IT. It seems like every day there is a new term being coined and new trends “up and coming.” During these past several decades, a few major waves come to mind and can be identified as ongoing trends:

1. Mainframe / mini era (1959)

2. Networked desktops and client server (1986ish)

3. Browser based and app server (1997)

4. Mobile and “cloud” (2008)

Each of these major trends caused transitions that led to a new way of interacting with technology. I like to call this shift, “re-platforming.” It’s bigger than merely a transformation since it affects the way things are “stood-up” in an enterprise. As this re-platforming is a catalyst for IT, which constantly needs to reposition/rebrand itself to meet current times and the needs of its users.

Mainframe/mini era

I don’t have first-hand experience working with mainframes and mini computers, but I did see them fade to the background with the proliferation of microprocessor-based systems in the 1980s. What makes this interesting is with the arrival of the microprocessor-based PC those in the mainframe/mini industry belittled it for not being a “real” computer. Yet, use of the PC grew and soon it took over jobs previously only done on its bigger cousins, such as data entry and text editing – use cases which opened the door for disruption and innovation, arrived by way of Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Word. The PC no longer needed a reason to be, and it ushered in a completely new definition of a computer.

Networked desktops and client servers

As technology advanced, the PC became more powerful and technologists began looking for ways to improve on their performance by connecting computers together, leading to the development of Ethernet in 1980. Ethernet allowed PCs to be connected together, and soon the notion of networking the PC (client) to a host (server) was born. The idea encouraged openness and commoditized hardware and software and gave rise to the idea that your client could be anywhere; it no longer had to be in the same building or even the same state.

Browser based and application servers

In the mid 1990s, the Internet began to take hold and IT experimented with the idea of using a central server to house an application and using the Internet as the access point to the application. Since networking and server disciplines need to exist as a prerequisite, the build out of client-servers laid the groundwork for the application servers – if your hardware (client) could be anywhere, why couldn’t the application be anywhere? This brings us to the browser and application server era. The growth of programmable web servers and browsers shepherded in application platforms like BEA and .NET, and the broad deployment of software such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer resource management (CRM) empowered businesses to garner more value from their data.

Cloud and Mobile

More recently, IT has begun to ride the cloud and mobile wave. Everyday I see new companies and innovative technologies that are emerging to leverage this trend. While we’re still at an early point of adoption with cloud, it is clear that it is and will continue to be a huge game changer for IT.

Cloud computing encompasses many things and I want to look at both public and private (hybrid) clouds and emerging technologies, which include the development of “as a service” platforms, mainly:

· Software as a Service (SaaS) – the new way software is delivered

· Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – think of it as the new server, network and storage

· Platform as a Service (PaaS) the new developer tool stack

These emerging technologies are having a huge impact on IT and are put to work differently based on the specifics of each enterprise’s requirements. On-premise, or private, cloud computing (IaaS and PaaS) is important for enterprises looking to maintain the privacy aspect but still receive the same self-service semantics as public cloud. Public, or hosted, cloud computing enables central IT managers to have the flexibility to broker various services to their business users, saving dramatically on costs and time.

In mobile, as always, history repeats itself. For just as the mainframe computing world belittled the PC, so the PC world belittled the mobile handheld device. Think back to 2007, when the iPhone was first introduced. The cool mobile phone was the small sleek Motorola Razr – and its champions poked fun of the iPhone and called it a brick. And yet, what happened at the end of this year’s Super Bowl? The TV cameras charged into the field as the Lombardi Trophy was about to be awarded. What did viewers see? A sea of iPhones in the hands of NY Giants players as they rushed to capture the winning moment. Yes, the iPhone and the other smartphones it ushered in have won. They are first-class computing citizens with capabilities that laptops lack including location-based services and truly continuous connectivity. Mobile devices as enterprise IT endpoints are no longer the exception but rather the rule.

Users are enamored with their smartphones with always-on connectivity and easy access, visually exciting applications that find their favorite restaurant, or keeping them connected to family and friends. These very same users want these attributes in their business applications too. They want to point (or touch) and shoot, and within seconds have their application up and running. They don’t want to have to enter a URL in a browser – it’s the last resort now. So on the surface one may say “so what” the phone is a micro computer with a little OS and some APIs, just hire a developer to create little applications for that small screen. If only it were that simple. The phone is outside the corporate network completely and the apps need to deal with network latency that would give inside the house app timeouts left and right. The phone doesn’t readily give an end user the opportunity to authenticate with Active Directory and needs its own functionality and development framework, which turns out gave birth to mobile PaaS. The establishment never sees the disruption in its true glory.

What about getting apps on to the device and managing them? Is this an IT function? What traditional PC and app lifecycle management tools are built for this? Ah, the web app. IT moved away from heavy weight apps a while ago and now we’re back to doing that again for mobile. So the net of it is all the challenges equal opportunity where desire is high at the point of attack.

The next big shift

With each new trend disruption followed and brought along opportunity. Opportunity for the next brilliant mind to create a technology that saw the solution to the obstacle. Each trend was accompanied by the creation of new companies and technologies. What disruption will arise from the mobile and cloud trend?

I’m betting on technology born in and enabling the success of big consumer facing properties like Facebook, Zynga and Google as the next shapers of enterprise IT. Examples include NoSQL, Hadoop and social mechanics. Unstructured data is growing faster than structured data and is being mined for business intelligence and productivity. Organizations are attempting to leverage social networks, fascinated by the interaction people have with each other and their ability to rally a protest or crowdsource the facts of a news story. It’s only a matter of time before our yearbook photos and status updates are part of the company directory.

We’re at the start of a wave and new companies are being created on a daily basis to lead the way to innovation. Each previous wave resulted in the creation of great enterprise software companies and we are sure to see this continue. Disruption creates opportunity and the desire to grab the opportunity yields outstanding innovation. At Ignition Partners, we are investing in this latest wave now and will continue to invest in technologies that are addressing the needs of future waves. As operators during the previous waves, and now as investors, we’re excited to be part of it.

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