Good Vs. Bad Simplicity

By eweek  |  Posted 2005-01-03 Print this article Print

The recent spate of mergers in the IT industry makes us recall the famous quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."

The recent spate of mergers in the IT industry makes us recall the famous quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler." Merging companies often promise theyll integrate their product lines and make things simpler for IT professionals. We suggest, after Einstein, that there is good simplicity and bad simplicity.

Some complexities are better banished. For example, users are better off when almost every application uses File and Edit menus with similar access to similar commands. In another example, Sun Microsystems prebuilds and pretests systems, combining Sun and third-party hardware and software in its "Customer Ready Systems." The modular subassemblies—Sun claims one-tenth the original number of components—are shipped to buyers.

We also respect the competitive spirit of Sun CEO Scott McNealy when he urges users to look at Suns hardware and software stack, end to end, and replace any part they dont like—with industry-standard interfaces and protocols making that more than an empty offer.

Lessened complexity is generally popular among IT professionals, who must focus scarce resources on supporting their companies strategic business goals. The downside of simplification, however, can be the hiding of unsolved problems, an increase in customer lock-in to a single vendor and the avoidance of opportunities for technological advantage.

We get edgy when we hear something such as Windows called "a single, integrated product," as Microsoft famously described it in October 1998. Despite how its packaged and sold, beneath the outer shell of Windows are many interfaces too well-hidden to be useful to third-party value-adding vendors—but not hidden well enough to prevent exploitation by attackers. Six years later, we get the same uncomfortable feeling when Symantec talks about its vision of integrating detection, remedy and avoidance. Symantec engineers described to eWEEK Labs a scenario in which a security breach is detected, a previous system snapshot is automatically restored to reverse the damage, and a patch is automatically obtained and applied. That much opportunity to rebuild a system doesnt sound like the sort of thing that ought to be too hands-off. It does sound like an opportunity to introduce proprietary mechanisms.

Click here to read more about the Symantec/Veritas merger. To be fair, Symantec and Veritas have not yet embarked on integration. We ask those vendors—and any others that will merge in the future—to reject the temptation of achieving user lock-in. The best approach is a product suite that embraces standard interfaces and can interoperate with other vendors best-of-breed products.

If vendors are to be taken at their word, were in an age of consolidation. We urge them to make things simpler but not too simple. And we urge IT pros to recall that some complexities are the price of creating and retaining a competitive advantage.

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