Procrustean IT: how the cloud changes the game

Probably the funniest Greek myth is that of the innkeeper Procrustes. In this myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon, and he had a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There he had an iron bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith's hammer, to stretch them to fit. If the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length. Either way, no-one survived. The seriousness with which we are wont to study Greek mythology tends to get in the way of our appreciation of the humour of this story, but surely we can all imagine ancient Greek children asking “Please, granddad, tell us the story of Procrustes!” and then falling on the floor laughing at each turn of the tale.

It seems to me that IT departments are typically run according to the principles of Procrustes. It is the dream of most CIO’s to have everything running on a very limited number of standardized platforms, each of which is progressed to the newest version as soon as the teething problems have been resolved. In practice, CIO’s are confronted with vast numbers of applications, each of which currently runs on its own set of products and versions of the operating system, database management system, Java Virtual machine etcetera. This requires complex resourcing, because expertise in many different products is required. It makes a software upgrade complex, because there always seems to be at least one application that cannot be upgraded to the new version. In order to keep things manageable, CIO’s employ IT architects in order to impose as much platform standardization as possible.

However necessary such standardization may be for the IT department, from a business point of view it is nonsense. It dictates that, given the choice between, on the one hand, an application that does what the business wants but doesn’t fit in with the platform standards, and on the other an application that doesn’t meet the needs of the business but does fit in with these standards, the latter application should be chosen. In other words, we put the cart before the horse.

Fortunately, the advent of cloud computing changes the nature of the game. With the cloud, platform problems become the concern of the application provider rather than the IT department. Different applications can run on different platforms or versions of platforms without the IT department having any resourcing or coordination problems. CIO’s can and must stop the nonsense of technology prevailing over the business. It changes the game for them. Even if they can convince the business that it is better to run everything on premise, the mere fact that the cloud is out there gives the business an external frame of reference with which to judge the IT offerings that the CIO provides.

The cloud has profound consequences for IT architects. Those of us whose primary task consists of imposing platform standards can be dispensed with. Those of us who are left can meet the new challenges which the cloud brings with it. We can determine how the cloud can be implemented in such a way that the business requirements to exchange information between applications can be met. We can determine how we can test the integration of new and replaced systems. Both of these things are necessary in order to ensure that cloud solutions deliver the added business value for which they have been purchased. The IT department is also uniquely equipped to act as intermediary between the business and the cloud provider, both because it provides the integration and because it has the expertise to assess the cloud provider’s offer.

In the original myth, Procrustes met his end when Theseus made him swallow his own medicine. Procrustes didn’t fit his own bed. IT departments that reject valid IT solutions because these make their life more complicated, may find themselves rejected by the business because they make the life of the business more complicated. The advent of the cloud means that the days of Procrustean IT are numbered, and that’s a good thing. Get used to it!

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