Thoughts on ‘The Big Switch’ by Nicholas Carr

The Big Switch begins by drawing a parallel between the effects of the rapid proliferation of electricity services and the impending state of ubiquity that the Internet-fueled IT world is reaching. The first half of the book makes a powerful case for the inevitability of a utility computing paradigm that is being driven by a perfect storm of technological and societal convergence; the effect that cheap connectivity to the global network and exponential gains in computing capacity is having on people, corporations, and governments is following a strikingly similar path to what we saw in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the development and standardization of the electrical grid.

Unfortunately, the second half of the book focuses on the potential impact of the “World Wide Computer” on global society and politics, and while it is a fascinating read unto itself, I felt like the tremendous momentum that had been made in the first half of the book was prematurely abandoned and the leap to the second half created a gap that was never quite filled. If the first half of the book had been more fully developed and taken to a logical conclusion that was contextually relevant to the ideas introduced in his previous book, Does IT Matter?, Carr’s place as a top thought leader in the IT world would have been cemented. The Big Switch just misses the mark, and I would like to see the first half and the second half further developed before being reconnected as a more cohesive roadmap.

That being said, there are some critical ideas in The Big Switch that need to be explored because they are highly relevant to the evolution of the IT delivery model:

  • In the developing stages of the industrial economy, manufacturing operations were required to generate their own electricity and maintain the infrastructure required to distribute electricity to machinery throughout their facilities. The proliferation of the electricity grid, which is a network not dissimilar to today’s data network, rendered localized power generation and distribution obsolete. As Carr observes, “It became a competitive necessity for manufacturers to hook their plants up to the new electric grid” (11).
  • We are in the middle of an Information Technology transformation that bears striking similarities to the transformation enabled by electricity. Carr argues successfully that the current corporate IT model, where organizations build and operate large scale private computing operations, is being threatened by the availability of standardized services provided over the Internet – a global “grid” for distributing data.
  • The thesis of Carr’s previous book, Does IT Matter?, was that the availability of standardized technologies diminished the strategic advantage that Information Technology could provide. Whereas companies at one time could compete based on the adoption of power generation and distribution systems, that advantage was supplanted by the availability of cheap power from centralized utilities; likewise, the early development or adoption of technology provided some companies with strategic competitive advantage prior to the rapid maturation of the Information Technology industry, but that advantage has also given way to the ubiquity of services that have been enabled by the global explosion of bandwidth and computing resources.
  • The traditional technology vendor model is being threatened by the emergence of centralized technology services that have taken on models resembling those of public utilities. There is a lingering tendency in traditional IT organizations to resist the progression towards models that focus on delivering the best available services regardless of where or how they are sourced; that tendency will be exploited by hardware and software vendors indefinitely, as it is in their best interest to ensure that their market remains buoyed by the highly inefficient management of private, decentralized computing infrastructures. Why would Microsoft or Dell want to embrace a future where their products are no longer needed on such large scales, because the services that rely on such software and hardware are being consolidated and distributed over a network and on standardized platforms that the entire world has access to?
  • With the standardization and general availability of Information Technology services that until recently were required to be managed within the walls of an organization, the ‘keep the business’ running aspect of IT is being pushed out to the “grid.” This will allow companies to refocus their IT strategies and apply the analytical and systematic capabilities of the IT organization to providing services core to driving business performance, thus providing IT with an opportunity to demonstrate tremendous value to the business rather than being a mere operational necessity.
Mike Topalovich Salesforce Technical Architect in Chicago
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