Information Technology has had a great impact on business productivity during my lifetime. My father ran his business with a manual typewriter. This was during the time when the IBM Selectric was popular, and personal computers were available, but not very good. Having a manual typewriter at that time was quirky, but it wasn’t that out-of-place in a small business where they just needed something simple , cheap, and functional.
My children (his granddaughters) do their elementary school homework using desktop publishing software and a color printer. They can definitely do a lot more than my dad could on his trusty old Smith-Corona.
During the first wave of personal computers in the workforce, lots of business people wondered if they would actually help the business be more productive, or if they would just be a distraction. After all, my dad seemed just fine with his old typewriter. Today, that question has been pretty well answered. We all know that modern businesses depend on their computers, and that if we took them away, we would need twice as many people, and maybe even then couldn’t get the work done with the same speed or level of quality. (Imagine modern phone bills being hand-typed!)
So we now think of IT as a potential for competitive advantage. Banks compete as much on their on-line banking system’s features as on the hours that their branches are open. Better IT systems can cut cost, improve speed and quality of service, and make your business more attractive to customers. But this isn’t true of all IT operations. Some of them are necessary evils, like backup and disaster recovery (DR).
If you design your backup solution perfectly, or you build an elaborate DR plan, it does nothing. It doesn’t get you any more customers, it doesn’t cut your cost, it doesn’t let you raise your prices. From a business perspective, and investment in DR doesn’t matter. Until it does. If you have a significant failure, and need to recover systems and data, DR matters. In fact, the general consensus is that large businesses that have a significant outage lose customers and reputation (i.e. future customers), and small businesses that are down for several days may never come back.
So the right way to think about DR is not by how much you will gain by doing it right, but by how much you will lose if you screw it up. That’s right – if you get it right, you get nothing, but if you get it wrong, you potentially lose everything. The question is – how much time, energy, and money do we want to invest into getting good at this subset of information technology? Wouldn’t we rather put more focus on the areas that actually can create value for the business? For areas where we cannot make a difference, we should think about outsourcing.
This is where cloud computing earns a lot of its value. Cloud is not better because it can offer servers at a lower cost; cloud is better because cloud vendors have an incentive to be better, and cheaper, and more reliable, and more secure than their competitors. They earn their living getting it right (at least the best ones do). Non-IT businesses have to look at things like DR, where doing better provides no business improvement, but doing worse hurts the business, and ask if they can compete with companies that specialize in the IT basics – power, cooling, network, and racked / stacked CPU and storage.
If you don’t think you can do better than the cloud vendor, and you suspect that you could (on a bad day) do worse, shouldn’t you just find a vendor you can trust, and pay them to do the stuff that doesn’t matter?