Internet Train Wreck

About 10 years ago, a business associate of mine made a memorable point at a database conference: "Al," he said, "the future of computing has nothing to do with operating systems. Within five years, operating systems won't even exist."

My friend ran a small database company at the time, so, naturally, when he said this, he meant that database engines would replace operating systems by 1995. After all, he figured, the only reason people needed operating systems was to run databases on them. Five years later, of course, it turned out he was wrong in two big ways: operating systems were by no means a thing of the past, and the Internet, not database technology, was the future.

Getting back to the future, I had an amusing bout of professional deja vu last week. A manager client of mine announced his five-year plan for advancing the state of the art of information technology at his company. He flew confidently through slide after slide of his presentation, talking about organizing a pool of Web programming talent, driving all the operating departments to implement intranet applications, and crash-developing an Internet "portal" front-end to facilitate dealing with business partners and customers via the Web. His message was clear: the Internet was the future, and his organization needed to marshal all of its talent and energy behind getting there.

When he finished, I asked how he planned to maintain the systems he already had. He looked puzzled. "You know," I said. "Things like your network, your desktop software platforms, your servers -- your IT infrastructure." He paused for a second, then dismissed my question by flatly asserting that Internet technology was the strategic foundation of his plan. Period.

In other words, operating systems had nothing to do with his computing future.

Of course, no one can dispute the strategic role of Internet technology in the evolution of modern business, and my client was correct to recognize this in his plan. On the other hand, I was silently counting "heads" as he laid out his objectives. I could see that he'd have to gut most of his infrastructure team to staff his Internet efforts. Because Internet work is hot stuff and infrastructure support is old hat, all the good people would flock to the cool new Internet positions, leaving the infrastructure grunt work to ... well, the grunts.

What do you think awaits my friend in this new Web-world he envisions? By advancing on the Internet front without evolving his infrastructure, he'll likely be the proud owner of Internet applications with unreliable operating system platforms to run them on, Internet-based multimedia content throttled by obsolete, low-bandwidth networks, and Web-based databases on obsolete, underpowered servers. He'll very probably find himself picking through the rubble of a complete IT train wreck.

Does the same future await you? By all means, push your staff to develop new Internet solutions; clearly, that's the right thing to do. But if you forget your network and system infrastructure in the bargain, don't be surprised if it isn't there for you when you roll out your new Internet applications. Today's starry-eyed new breed of CIO, all-too-eager to hop aboard that sleek Internet train to Tomorrowland, will do well to pay a little heed to maintaining and upgrading the old and worn-out tracks under their wheels. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at