Jan 01 2006

Disaggregating IT

Here's how to stimulate rejuvenation by taking things apart.

Many of the revolutions in business and technology over the past 30 years resulted from deliberate efforts to break things apart. Dismantling AT&T's infrastructure led to competition in long-distance and local telephone services, plummeting prices and inexpensive data communications. Digital photography broke the connection between cameras and film, and now photography pops up in odd places — such as handheld computers and cell phones.

Companies often make information technology choices based on the premise of breaking things apart, but they apply this approach on a different scale. A small company will use a single server for Web access and e-mail, but as the company grows, it breaks the system apart. First, e-mail gets a dedicated server; then IT adds a server just for incoming e-mail and then later adds another devoted solely to virus scanning. Almost instinctively, IT departments and computer architects disaggregate — break apart — the IT infrastructure to make it more flexible and to solve pesky problems.

You can use these same ideas to create a small-scale or large-scale revolutionary change of your job, department or company. Here are two examples:

• The first focuses on internal change. A successful company experienced growing pains as various departments scuffled with each other: Sales fought with marketing, and marketing argued with engineering. The company decided to break apart the old lines of authority that were based on expertise and job functions, and focus instead on supporting the five main product groups. In effect, it created five minicompanies that were invisible to the outside world. One important result: trust. Forcing the staff to sit literally side by side instead of isolating them into IT or marketing departments, taught them to communicate with and rely on each other. Breaking things apart helped make the company more competitive. Instead of one queue for engineering requests, each product group had its own queue, which led to faster product rollouts.

• The second example shows how companies break up their IT systems to provide direct value to customers. A large Internet-based auction house did just that when it opened up its internal servers to external customers. Instead of entering and retrieving auction information via Web pages, customers could manipulate the database through more sophisticated functions that were once off limits. To provide these functions, the auction house had to break its infrastructure apart in two ways. The first was a purely mechanical task: the company divided internal servers from external servers, partitioned data access according to security rules and separated software into more sharply defined modules. But it also divided ownership of the data; with customer access, data that was once strictly the property of the auction house became something that was, at least conceptually, shared with customers.

The effort resulted in a permanent boost to the auction house. Not only did its customers gain more flexibility, but both customers and the auction house enjoyed a tremendous outpouring of creativity, another typical benefit of breaking things apart. Third-party developers began to build solutions based on the auction house's former internal functions and integrate them into customer systems. It was as if the auction house's R&D department expanded a dozen times over. For example, using third-party solutions, some savvy customers automatically list stale inventory for auction — a listing is created and posted automatically, while auction results integrate into the customers' regular ordering processes. The customers see better merchandise turnover, the auction house increases its listings, and the third-party developers flourish. A perfect ecosystem sprang up, nourished by careful disaggregation of previously internal functions at the hands of the IT department.

Moshe Yudkowsky, author of The Pebble and Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions, is president of consulting firm Disaggregate Consulting (www.disaggregate.com) in Chicago. He has 20 years of experience creating technology products and holds several patents.


• Breaking apart your technical or business infrastructure can lead to revolutionary innovations.
• Major areas where you can break things apart include authority, ownership and mechanics.
• The benefits of breaking things apart include enhanced flexibility, better sharing with your customers and the opportunity for vastly improve creativity.