what’s wrong with IT?

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Hold on a bit.
I am a monk of the old order, one of the illuminati of software stacks. By no means a high priest, but like many of my brethren I have been ordained with most of the dirty little secrets over the years since I joined the convent. I never specialized so I am well read in ancient texts and new work, and I have meditated on subjects ranging from compiling compilers through 3D rendering and artificial intelligence to business processes and value chains. In the constant rush to deliver on the promises of technology I’ve seen projects that are set up for failure even before they start. I’ve seen enough code to write a book detailing example for example what you should not do during development.

The secrets are many, and they are complex and hard to grasp out of context, but to misuse an old adage: the truth is simple and it’s out there.

The reason applications fail is because they are complex, but the reason IT fails is that IT people expect the applications to be simple to manage, and the business has a nasty tendency to promote the clueless.

It’s amazing how much money is thrown out the window (and into greedy hands) by large corporations and public departments on hairy overcomplicated blackbox solutions that are supposed to meet simple business needs.

Take databases for example. It’s easy to argue that the database is part of core business (because all the critical application data ends up in the database) and thus the database must be highly available, highly performant and highly secure. Maybe that’s how the CTO’s of the world justify spending millions on monstrous arcane iron black boxes to serve their modest database needs. Annualy!

The same needs, if properly understood, could be served by the fraction of the cost while being easier to manage and debug!

This is not just a schpiel on Postgres (who cares it’s open source, it can do all that and more) but a general protection fault in how technology is driven today.

Another nice example is DNS, which is beyond core business in importance: without domain resolution nearly all infrastructure fails. DNS problems can cause the most obscure failures simply because applications have no provision for DNS failure. Quite a few IT departments all over the world operate DNS through point-and-click wizards without anything but the rudimentary understanding of its inner workings. Should they have that understanding? Hell yes, otherwise sooner or later it must fail as everything does, and when it does they have none of the tools to fix it!

Scarier still is that the rest of the world (or very nearly) has standardized on the most baroque and insecure DNS server in existence (BIND me in hell with seven furies burning marks in my skin), a precise analogy to what has happened in the world of e-mail (sendmail will do anything but!). We do this because we follow Best Business Practices, which is the IT analogue of what happens to you when you go through airport security: it is completely ineffective but feels safer.

Other examples of the same thing happening is the proliferation of security products that offer nothing but a smokescreen, the use of gigantic and poorly considered application frameworks and the abstraction and layering of simple concepts into behemoth object-relation collections.
Humans have a distinctly object-oriented view of the world, all the same the world is trying to tell us that objects don’t exist in their own right but depend on a whole slew of epiphenomena.

Software rots if it is not maintained.
None of the above are hard problems, regardless of what others might have tried to jam down your throat. Databases are a snooze to work on, DNS and mail should Just Work, and once we have a web application stack going for us we’re not going to consider how it works or what could be better. The difficulty that lies in application infrastructure is a people problem.

We want to buy a shrink-wrapped product and feel value for money without risk.

There is some sort of mass marketing effect happening where decision makers are best influenced by the greediest hands. We tend to think that the most expensive car has the best value with the least risk, and we seldom so clear-sighted as to go back on decisions we have already made.

So what’s the fix?

Decision makers should spend more time evaluating the options before launching headlong into projects based on best business practices, and they should identify and listen more to the few quiet people that have a clue. The people with clue usually only get to vent their frustrations by making crass jokes about management and the hairyness of the most recent or most painful and embarassing failure of technology. These things are not talked about openly, but they should be.

Ideally we should focus on long-term research into the difficult problems of technology: artificial intelligence, algorithms, how to feed the starving and save the world from imminent ecological disaster, quantum computing etc, instead of spending so much time failing at the simple things.

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