5 questions for John M. Willis

John M. Willis, a.k.a. Botchagalupe, or possibly a close associate of Botchagalupe, asked me to answer five questions which he posted on his blog, and to ask five questions in return. Here are my five questions for John. He works on Tivoli with Big Blue but if you can get past the vendor thing :-D John is a battle-scarred warrior of IT operations with a suitably hard-bitten view of the world that aligns well with my skeptical outlook. Enjoy his responses:

Skep: Open source Linux and Apache have both hit the corporate mainstream. What other open source software types are already seen as non-controvertial choices in the business world? MySQL? Office? Programming languages/environments? AV? CMS? Console/monitoring? What is nearly there?

John: Most of my experience with enterprise customers has been with "Big Blue" (a.k.a. IBM) customers. Most of these companies are Fortune 5000 companies that have been working with IBM hardware and software for over 30 years. These customers typically look at vendors as their partners and are typically conservative in their IT purchasing choices. One of the reasons, I believe, that Linux and Apache have been successful with the "Big Blue" customer base is because of IBM's early commitment to these open source projects. Back as early as 1998 IBM started committing resources to Apache and Linux and it has paid off for them. Today Apache and Linux are used in almost 60% of the enterprise space. However, this is where the gap starts. Other than Eclipse, IBM has not bet the farm on any other specific open source technology. Therefore, from a "Big Blue" customer perspective there is a large gap between open source technologies such as Apache and Linux and the others. However, it appears that some open source monitoring tools have found a little niche with the Unix sysadmin in the "Big Blue" customer space. Despite IBM's non-commitment to open source, monitoring tools tools like Nagios and Cacti seem be everywhere I go. If I had to pick an open source technology in the IT management space that is closest up the stack to Apache and Linux, I would have to say Nagios. Products like MySQL and PostgreSQL have a long uphill battle within the "Big Blue" space due to IBM and Oracle saturation. On a hopeful note, I think that content management systems (CMS) like Alfresco and Drupal have a shot at moving up the stack because they are perfect tools for the way people in the "enterprise" socially interact.

Skep: You are a big Drupal fan (as I am). What is to stop Drupal conquering the world?

John: You know I love Drupal. I think Drupal's power lies in its framework for integrating and managing user defined taxonomies. If you really understand the data that you want to deliver and know how you want to deliver it, IMHO, there is no better choice than Drupal. That is not to say that Drupal doesn't have it's competition. Drupal has a little bit of a learning curve. Whereas, a tool like Wordpress, not quite a CMS yet, is the simplest product I have ever used. Wordpress keeps adding features that are making it look more and more like a CMS. I have not played as much with Alfresco; however, they seem to be doing well in the enterprise. I think one of the main knocks against Drupal in the past has been it's enterprise support. Until recently Drupal really hasn't had a vendor support model around it. Acquia just recently announced commercial support for Drupal. Dries Buytaert, Drupal's co-founder, was one of the original authors of Drupal.

Skep: Your blog intermingles life and work. Some say this is the future as the distinction disappears. Others say it is unhealthy. What are your views?

John: This is a great question. They say blogging is like having Tourette Syndrome. You can say anything you want and who cares what it sounds like. When I started my blog, I really had no agenda. I figured I would ramble about IT management and if no one listened that would be fine. I am also a wannabe entrepreneur and I am always looking at new technologies to blog about. In the Tourette model I just can't keep my mouth shut when I see something interesting, even if it doesn't have anything to do with IT management. I also have two boys, 5 and 9, and I am very interested in education technologies as well. Somewhere along the way I started interjecting personal and family stories as blog articles. After I started getting a little bit of a following on my blog, I thought I should really take my blog more seriously. I thought of dropping the personal and silly stories and sticking with more of a marketing focus on IT management. Then one day I ran into a very successful PR person at an airport lounge and she told me that she loved my blog and that she reads it religiously. I told her that I thought I should stop doing what I call "Silly Stories" on my blog because it might not seem professional. She then asked me, "Is the blog your job or your hobby?". I told her I really didn't know the answer to that question. She then told me "The reason I like your blog is because it's you!" and that's what, in her opinion, makes it great. Then I realized why I created the blog in the first place. For now I guess my blog is just a hobby and I therefore I will just keep having a lot of fun doing it.

Skep: ...and achieving an impressive Page Rank Five in the process.
What is the "state of the nation" in cloud computing? What's real? What's not? How far are we up the curve?

John: Cloud computing is real, make no mistake about it. It is as real as Client Server was in the mid 1980's and as real as the Internet was in the late 1990's. However, the cloud hype is at exactly the same level as those two technologies were in their infancy. When you see cloud computing work the evidence is uncontrovertable. For instance, when the startup Animoto, a web video service, added their application on Facebook, they went from 10 servers to 5,000 servers in one week. During that week they added almost 700,000 new customers. If they were not using a cloud they would have lost 90% of that new business. When the NY Times needed to convert 11 million (1.5 TB of data) TIFF files to PDF's, they used Amazon's Web Services. They were able to accomplish this task in one night for $240 dollars. NASDAQ Market Replay provides a NASDAQ-validated replay and analysis of the activity in the stock market. Market Replay is a free service. There is no way they could provide this kind of service for free if they weren't using a cloud.

For today's Web 2.0 startup businesses, the cloud is allowing entrepreneurs to go to market in staggering numbers. The cloud is a great tool to minimize investment costs and startup infrastructure costs. The true power of the cloud is the concept of elasticity. Elasticity allows users to allocate resources when needed and free them up when they are not needed. In the Animoto example the real story wasn't that they could elastically allocate 5k servers in a week. It was that two weeks later they were back down to only 100 servers. Think of the local gym analogy. What if a new gym prior to opening decided to give away a very low enrollment fee for the first 1000 new customers? On opening week all 1000 people showed up everyday for the first week. If this happened, they probably would go out of business and people would want their money back. Even though a week later there might only be 50 people in the gym at any given time. This is not to say that the cloud is a one size fits all. Not all businesses need elasticity. Also, there are still security, compliance and geopolitical concerns about using clouds. The enterprise will likely move slowly into the clouds.

Skep: To many people, operations management is about as exciting as waste management. What has kept you in the industry?

John: Willie Sutton, the prolific bank robber, supposedly said "I rob banks because that's where the money is." Well I love IT management, because that is where the infrastructure is. I started my career as a systems programmer at Exxon in Houston, Texas, and I remember meeting an associate on my first day during orientation. He had a CS degree from MIT and he was going into the programming department. At the time I was jealous thinking he had a better job than me. Over the years we compared notes about our careers and he once confided in me that he wished he would have gone into IT management instead of programming. He was right, he should have went into IT management. I have learned more about different industries working in IT management than I could have learned doing any other job. I get to peek my head into the largest federal operations, banks, retail and insurance companies around the world.

Skep (bonus sixth question): Who's the guy in the banner on your blog?

John: That's Botchagalupe.


The battle with Big Blue

I can't fault John's logic on Open Source, except, I think the battle with Big Blue on Open Source assumes that OpenSource is targeting existing workloads. To a certain extent Open Source tries to focus on new workloads. In this area the risk associated with an undefined ROI makes the $zero cost of acquisition pretty damn attractive and defocusses the risk associated with a community built product. Especially in a down economy.

Open Source is being adopted by the Fortune 5000 companies in the same way as the Internet and PC's. Its being deployed around the formal acquisition policies (thats the point of $0). You will not "see" OpenSource in Enterprise customers until much later in the deployment cycle. OSS customers mostly monetize (talk to vendors) once the adoption of the success of there deployment is confirmed and they need some insurance in the form of support.

Linux and Apache have been "outed".. The next wave is application infrastructure that hold customers hostage with high license fees with non-justifiable value for that money. Monitoring tools are a classic of this (infinitely complex, expensive, hard to deploy and manage), databases are definitely there, application servers are another that fortune 5000's are deploying hand over fist, but as yet not talking to vendors (the download figures and the update figures show this pattern).


Brad Vaughan

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