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The power and benefits of encouraging IT disruption

IT can't remain a reactive cost center and cheerful help desk, but must become a competitive, cutthroat service provider and powerful champion of emerging disruptive technology.

I have a theory that true IT disruption happens when something nonlinear occurs to change the traditional expectation or baseline for a key operating capability. In storage, this could be related to capacity, performance or value. We've seen great market disruption -- not to mention data center evolution -- with the rise of scale-out vs. scale-up storage architectures, flash vs. disk and big data analytics vs. data warehouse business intelligence, for example. These disruptions have all brought orders of magnitude improvement, enabling many new ways to distill more value out of data.

I'm not saying we leave disrupted technologies completely behind, but old top-tier technologies can quickly drop down our perceptual pyramids of perceived value. Some older techs do disappear -- think floppy drives and CRT monitors. But usually, they get subsumed as a lower tier inside a larger, newer umbrella and relegated to narrower, less prestigious use cases.

Emerging disruptive storage technologies include nonvolatile memory express server-side flash and persistent memory; in-storage data processing, combining software-defined storage, containerization and in-stream processing; global file systems and databases with global consistency, security, protection and access features; pervasive machine learning; and truly distributed internet of things data processing.

If you know it's coming, is it really disruptive?

You might think it's been the monstrous, growing volume of data, which is certainly growing nonlinearly, that's given birth to these disruptive technologies. That's the story told by all the vendor presentations I've seen in the last few years. I've even presented that line of thinking myself.

Successful disruption requires early adopters be willing to take some risks.

The problem with that interpretation is that it makes the storage industry look reactive instead of proactive. And it also makes them look like heroes or at least paragons of product management, figuring out exactly what people need and delivering it just in time to save IT from certain disaster.

If we're honest, the truth is more likely that newer generations of storage technologies let us retain massively growing volumes of data, access that data faster and increase the ROI for keeping and analyzing ever bigger data sets. In other words, it's new technology that enables more data, not the fact of more data causing new technology. Creating disruptive technology may be as much a matter of luck as intentional design.

Disruptive technologies arise out of vendors serving our competitive natures. We are always looking for the next available advantage. But an advantage needn't be disruptive. It can be incremental. It's also easier for vendors to position -- and their clients to consume -- incremental upgrades. You know the drill, don't rock the boat too far at once. Many vendors don't even know if what they're rolling out is incremental or actually disruptive.

Successful IT disruption requires that early adopters be willing to take some risks and then allow gestation time to make a real splash. These can be big hurdles, and lots of potentially disruptive technologies and products simply don't make it to market. Interestingly, some big company marketeers will do anything to dress up a lackluster incremental offering as disruptive to show leadership, while smaller vendors will sometimes desperately repackage their potentially disruptive technology as an easier-to-sell, incremental offering.

When a real nonlinear IT disruption becomes widely recognized in a market, it's no longer sufficient for traditional incumbents to show incremental improvement. They must quickly get onboard with the disruption, which means your favorite vendors need to disrupt themselves over and over again. The bigger the company, the harder staying on top of IT disruption becomes. Instead of contracting with big vendors known for their deep patent portfolio and long-term support of legacy solutions, it may pay to look at open source-based, faster evolving approaches from more-agile and, often, service-oriented providers.

Truly disruptive platforms are going to be far more lucrative for both vendors and adopters. No matter the sales pitch, you should be on the lookout for projects with potential orders of magnitude improvement. While IT is responsible for keeping its ship upright and on course, we IT folks should also be looking to continually upgrade our ship, too.

It's never easy to upgrade core IT capabilities, but helping shift to new technologies is a valuable skill that great practitioners can provide their organizations. (It also helps to justify a good salary.) If the pace of technological disruption keeps increasing, the ability to shift midstream will become increasingly important.

Storage chicken or data egg?

Does it really matter which came first, the data or the storage? Perhaps not, but spotting disruptive advances early, and adopting or planning to adopt them quickly, matching technology maturity to organizational aggressiveness, is becoming a key IT management skill. Evolving your storage infrastructure to be more agile and capable of adopting disruptive technology sooner should become a major IT management goal for your enterprise.

With increasingly fast nonlinear advances in technical capabilities, it's as much art as science to stay on top of, and harvest the most advantage from, the latest technologies. This isn't just about storage and IT. If your company isn't being disruptive with its own products and services, it's simply not going to prosper. All 21st century examples of tremendously successful companies, from Google and Facebook to Uber and Apple, have been powered by fast and deep IT disruption. 

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