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:
- The important decisions are made when it is set up or installed.
- Once running the only normal change a customer can request is asking for more. And the cost is usually based on volume.
- It is dependable – there is a large mean time between failures.
- Each utility service is separate from others.
- 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.