IT is not a Utility Service

Power is a utility service.  Water is a utility service.  Your phone can be a utility service.  There is a growing trend in the industry that Information Technology (IT) should be treated as a utility service as well.  But in the current form it is used by most businesses, IT is not a utility service.

What makes a utility service?  Generally they share the following features:

  1. The important decisions are made when it is set up or installed.
  2. Once running the only normal change a customer can request is asking for more.  And the cost is usually based on volume.
  3. It is dependable – there is a large mean time between failures.
  4. Each utility service is separate from others.
  5. It is normally provided by a 3rd party vendor to the business.

It is easy to see why a business wants IT to be a utility service.  It is easy to say that IT is not part of our core business.  It is easy to project costs.  The problem is that IT does not share many of the features of a utility service.

Another precipitator to this view is that many people already think of IT as a utility service; they are disappointed when it does not function as one.  My mother complains when she can’t just sign onto the home computer and have it work.  She is especially upset when she has to perform maintenance just to keep it in a working condition.

IT is also very similar to the telephone service;  in fact IT and telephony might ride over the same underlying network technologies.  If the telephone can be provided as a service IT should be as well.  I would agree that dial tone is a utility service.  When you pick up your phone you can make a call. Other service layered on top of dial tone are just another form of IT service.

My view depends on your agreeing with me on what IT provides to the business.  I believe that IT can only do two things for a business.  It can facilitate communication and it can enable business processes.  Businesses rely on IT to always do both.  If IT only facilitated communication it could be treated as a utility service, albeit differently than it is commonly used.  However, to enable business processes IT needs to be integrated into the business in a way that is impossible for a utility service.

IT operations runs as a lifecycle of evaluation, planning, deployment, operations and back to evaluation again.   Important decisions are made during the initial installation, but those decisions are constantly reevaluated. Additionally, IT requires constant maintenance are upgrades.  Software must normally be updated at least yearly – Windows requires monthly updates.  Firmware and hardware might go two or three years between updates.  Unlike a utility service these upgrades will be noticeable to the business.

IT change is not typically just a matter of requesting more IT service.  A typical change is to deliver a modified service, new features or a new service.  A cost model based around the volume of service alone will not suffice because the only way to make these typical changes then it to treat them as new utility service requiring a new contract.

The constant nature of change is IT means that its dependability is often lower than a utility service.  Change introduces risk and regardless of mitigation sometimes those risks occur and impact the business.

Finally IT service can often not be isolated from one another.  Generally each IT service depends on other IT services.  Sometimes in an hierarchical manner, but often in a complex web of interelations.

A common approach to these issues is to admit that IT is not a utility service, but that components such as the network and storage are.  This line of thought is common even among IT professionals.  Certainly this enables a utility service approach, but these IT services are still not mature enough yet to truly behave as utilities.  For instance if you treat network as a utility  your volume measurement is bandwidth and network is often purchased from an ISP in exactly this way.  But unfortunately one network service is not always equivalent to another.  Layering other services on top – such as VOIP, Video Conferencing, busty traffic vs. sustained high volume traffic – often requires different underlying network architectures.  And storage – provided as a service measured in GB or TB – is useless if the service only provides storage.  Backup/Recovery, Access Control, Auditing, records management and other services must be considered during the provisioning of a storage solution.

Mostly though you lose the tie between IT and the business when it is a utility service.  If your business is making widgets, another business is selling widgets and a third is marketing widgets they can all purchase power based on volume, but the IT services needed are significantly different.  Furthermore, a business wants to be flexible.  They want to be able to drive change and not have that change limited by the requirements of their utility service.

It is possible to a business to treat IT as a utility service provided that they are willing to accepts the constraints that this places on them.  For instance, you can purchase your e-mail service from Google as a utility service.  But what can’t you do then?  Integrate with mobile devices.  Embed e-mail workflow in other business applications.  Customize security such a storage and transmission encryption.  Implement unified communications.

It is possible that as IT matures component services will become better suited to act as utility services.  That would be nifty.  But that is not the case today without accepting significant constraints on the component service.  And it will never be the case for IT as a whole without breaking the tie between IT and the business.


9 thoughts on “IT is not a Utility Service

  1. Suellen says:

    Preachifying to the choir.

    I think one of the great problems IT is facing is one of maturity. In order for it to function well, you need to understand or trust someone who does to manage it for you. Unfortunately this has led to outsourcing what some see as a problem to someone else because they believe it’s a black hole of knowledge, resources and time. On the other hand, people in the industry itself are notoriously poor communicators unable (or even unwilling) to acknowledge that the reason IT is as varied as it is has more to do with meeting business needs than pushing the envelope just because.

    • ttgdyck says:

      I’m pretty sure I’ve got an outsourcing blog in me somewhere. I just need to work it out so that when employers find it they don’t toss my resume in the circular file.

      The irony that IT is most useful to facilitate ease of communication, but the conception of IT workers as dungeon dwelling trolls isn’t lost on me. I was also thinking of blogging that as well, but from a different angle. In truth though, my experience is that the distribution of good communicators to bad in IT is about the same as any other population distribution.

      Also I just studied Hayek in my philosophy course. He has a theory on the division of knowledge that should be improved by IT, but I feel is likely exacerbated. Not sure I’ll hit that in my first philosophy blog or not.

      Note to self: Must stop replying to every comment. It looks desperate.

  2. Suellen says:

    The communicator distribution through various professsions is a matter of debate. IT workers just seem to be pidgeon holed into the ‘Comic Book Guy’ role. I guess it’s human nature to confirm prejudices instead of trying to disprove them.

    If I’m candid (and when am I not), I also tend to take this particualr topic personally. I currently work in what the people in the this building call a dungeon. I work for an outsourcing firm. I’m surrounded by people who really know their stuff but have a surprising inability to articulate why what we do brings value to the company.

    The division of knowledge works fine if you 1)trust the other person to know what they are talking about, 2) trust the other person in generaly and 3) respect the knowledge that he or she brings to the table. If any one of those things is missing, it doesn’t work out so well.

    • ttgdyck says:

      Tricky. Cycles are self-perpetuating – like inertia. If X thinks of IT as a dungeon, then so will Y (who works in the dungeon) and will enforce the opinion of X. It isn’t going to break on its own. Scary though. Will you be discriminated for holding a minority opinion? Will you be seen as a shit disturber? Will you be a crazy smiling, creepy person or preachy, annoying person? And there is no guarantee that one shoulder to the wheel can change direction noticeably. No shoulders does nothing though.

      I once saw a Toastmaster World champion talk about negative opinions. He said they were like a bucket of crabs. If one crab tries to crawl out, they other crabs would draw them back in. His advice was not to hang out with crabs, but with happier seafood like shrimp. I don’t really agree. First off, in a workplace environment you can’t always choose your co-workers or who is driving the prevailing opinions. Switching jobs every time someone with a negative opinion joins the team is silly. Second the crab might be right – things might suck. Oddly though happiness and satisfaction aren’t that tightly bound to hardship. (That is an incomplete thought – maybe a happiness post someday.) Finally, I’m not really a desert the crabs to their own deserts sort of fellow – at least not until change has been attempted.

      Not that I’m addressing your situation directly Suellen – just my views. IMO, you generally try and ameliorate a place.

      Back closer to your reply – communication is a two way street. Many folks in IT say they are customer focused, but they aren’t actually engaged in the business. That is they are focused on resolving the immediate issues, closing the ticket, satisfying the customer, but they haven’t read the yearly business plan. Continued IT operation isn’t a business goal. It is just an expectation. The business goals is likely selling a new kind of widget or something. If IT is to be valued it won’t be about maintaining uptime (although failing that is bad), but helping the business sell its widget.

      And that is tricky to do. It means learning another language besides IT. It means investing yourself in the business (which may not be attractive if you currently dislike your job). It likely means having your ideas shot down 9 times out of 10.

      And that trust thing is even more tricky. I agree all three items are needed. How can that be gained if it doesn’t exist?

      I dunno – what do I know? Normally enough to stick my foot in my mouth.

  3. Daniel says:

    Okay, I want to weigh in as a non-IT person. In fact, I want to go all the way back to my most non-IT roots: farming. Why? Because I think there is a parellel here.

    IT is like a combine. Indeed, all machines combined. A farmer’s ‘widget’ is grain. The farmer has all sorts of utilities that he needs to produce that grain, but the combine is not one of them. You could call the combine a tool, but that is insufficient. It is far more than that. The combine is an integrated component of his business that facilitates (and is necessary for) the production of his product yet the combine itself is not his business nor is it a utility.

    Now the point I am trying to make is that the farmer himself needs to be an expert on combines. He cannot be just an expert on agriculture and the commodities market. He must also be a combine mechanic and a heavy equipment operator. A very specialized mechanic.

    A combine is not just a vehicle, like a truck. It has about 50 thousand more moving parts and the demands placed on it are huge and complex. But, this added complexity and demand make the machine prone to breakdown. If the farmer were to wait for an outside professional to come in, or worse yet to take his busted machines to the professional, none of us would ever eat. He must be his own combine mechanic. As an old farm boy, I have gained (by temperment or training) what I call ’15 ranks in Jury Rig’. It is a necessary part of who I am (even though I am not a farmer anymore).

    I watch my IT friends and see that IT is much the same way. Computers are no longer just tools that businesses use, they are an integrated part of the business but not the business. To go Shakespearian, they are not a prop on the stage nor the play itself but a part of the stage. They are becoming the medium in which business is done (i’m not just meaning internet sales, I mean this on a bigger level than that).

    Thus, IT needs to be as integrated into business as the combine mechanic and heavy equipment operator is integrated inside the head of the farmer. They are one interacting unit of many parts.

    One of the problems, as I see it, is that many of the top people in the business and gov’t world are of a certain . . . age. They still see computers as a new fangled tool. They think of them as oversized calculators even while they are ever increasing the demand they place on them. For them the IT people are glorified calculator repair men. They simply do not understand what it is that IT does and thus they undervalue it. This, I think, is part of the ‘utility’ perspective. “Just supply me with my tools so I can do my job!”

    This, however, will be solved with time. More and more grey hairs grew up with computers. More and more, business professionals are living a computer integrated existance. These people will see IT as an integral part of what they do.

    Okay, that didn’t make much sense. Sorry. If you lived in my head you would just see the parallel here.


    • ttgdyck says:

      That is a neat way to approach the problem differently and come to nearly the same conclusion. More entertaining than mine too.

      Division of labor causes us issues though. Unfortunately we aren’t the farmer – we see only a portion of the widget creation. And our natural instincts cause us to believe that our portion is more valuable than the other portions.

      So say I’m the seeder/sales dude, I see my bit as more important than the combine/IT dude. Both are equally important, but not apparently to the individuals. In theory, you are right time should prove the importance. But the time will be lengthened as long as the seeder is making the decisions. Holy mangled metaphor!

      Ooh and this – IT has long said that we will revolutionize business in the same way the combine/farm machinery revolutionized farming. I don’t think we are even close to that return on investment. So even if we can get acceptance as being integral to the business, they might still have the back of the mind thought, “I can make do with the scythe if necessary.”

      Thanks Dano! Go find the intro thread – philosopher king/sport climber/12 ranks in Jury Rig folks are of interest to us geeks.

      • Dano says:

        Absolutley, I saw that right away. The farmer is one guy (or a family), the integration of needs, abilities, skills, and such is perfect. There is no competing egos or division of labour. In fact, the big business farms that do things like hire a permanent mechanic start to develope these problems and they are a detriment to the business. Clearly the goal of business to have IT and indeed all its parts as perfectly integrated as the vast skill set of the farmer is an ideal that may be unattainable but in attempting to do so we approach it in a manner that perhaps we can apply a limit to and be satisfied.

        I also think that part of this problem lies in the economic model. The idea that competition at the macro reality cannot help but trickle down into the micro realities of a business. Essentially, we cannot make warring selfishness and greed the fundamental motivators of the economy without the developement of egoism in businesses and their constituant parts. This, however, is a systemic reality far beyond the solvable scope of this discussion.

        • ttgdyck says:

          Economic Models are something I’m interested in getting into at some point, but I’ll quickly hit a wall there of not being very knowledgeable.

          But today instead I’ll either do a silly post – inspired by you or something on the Kindle. Enough cloying earnestness. 🙂

  4. Suellen says:

    Wow, I would never have thought about it that way Dan. Thanks for your insight.

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