Whats in Tech Kool-Aid?

IT managers should know what's in the packages they buy.

The expression "To Drink the Kool-Aid" is probably fixed forever in the lexicon of wry humor despite its grisly origin in the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide of 1978. It suggests the wholesale adoption of a group view or behavior, rather than judicious choice among options guided by ones knowledge, research and goals.

Even without the cyanide of the Jonestown recipe, a Kool-Aid technology portfolio is not a healthy thing.

Web services, for example, can be a tempting pitcher of refreshment for IT builders who are tired of complexity and cost. Just stir the powder of a few simple protocols into the ubiquitous water of Internet connectivity, decorate with a lime wedge of business logic and serve.

But what youve got is still just sugared water with color and flavor added; its neither vintage wine nor Gatorade, and sometimes you need those more exotic potions.

You may need a messaging layer more robust than HTTP or a protocol with more intrinsic security than available today from SOAP or an underlying database with associative capabilities that dont map well onto an XML hierarchy.

No problem. The reason for having open, standards-based interfaces is to enable substitutions. But youll enjoy that flexibility only if you at least know how to read a list of ingredients and, preferably, know enough to whip up solutions from raw materials rather than being limited to prepackaged offerings.

IT hardware is also taking on a Kool-Aid character, as the next wave of desktop replacements seems to be tilting toward capable and affordable laptops instead of conventional cabinet PCs. There are many good reasons for this move: A full-function laptop can be securely configured for network access from office, hotel room or home, and it can be furnished with a locked-down software suite that meets corporate needs for interoperability without undue vulnerability.

FireWire, USB and various connectivity hubs increasingly offer alternatives to labor-intensive installation and configuration of internal cards. The hardware needs of todays graphically rich office productivity suites are similar to those of engineering applications, such as computer-aided drafting tools, while ever-present demand for Internet connectivity further narrows the gap between a white-collar PC and an engineering workstation. Fewer separate configurations are needed, making the greater flexibility of open-slot machines less of an obvious benefit.

Its tempting, therefore, to let laptop makers take on the burden of integrating hardware bundles that work as if they were designed as systems. But as with the components of a Web service, enterprise buyers must retain familiarity with the ingredients—as well as with the artfully packaged "serving suggestions"—of what they find on the shelves.

Theres more to a laptop system than the clock speed of its processor, the capacity of its memory and disks, and the number of pixels on its display. Graphics hardware, for example, still matters, and its noteworthy that even a sole-source hardware provider like Apple Computer has not limited itself to a single offering—but gives buyers, instead, a choice between ATI and Nvidia graphics processors. Actual performance of FireWire controllers or Ethernet interfaces can also be differentiators—especially under less-than-ideal conditions, which is where quality of hardware and care in writing driver software can really pay off.

Not every technology choice has enough strategic impact, compared with its bottom-up design and integration cost, to deserve the investment of creating a custom solution. Although United Parcel Service runs a proprietary fleet of custom-designed vehicles and United Airlines pays high-profile chefs to come up with distinctive in-flight food service menus, UPS doesnt refine its own gasoline and United doesnt build its own planes. The point is not to replace the extreme of Kool-Aid with the opposite extreme of microbrewing.

Rather, Im urging you to ask tech providers—both hardware and software—about the supplier choices theyre making and to challenge your IT staff to think deeply about the options inside the convenient envelopes labeled "Web services" or "desktop-replacement laptops." If Kool-Aid is what you want, go for it, but not because you didnt know there was anything else.

Technology Editor Peter Coffees e-mail address is peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.