Vendor With the Simplest Solution Wins

Avoid complexity, and fewer things will break.

How vast is your IT operation? A better question might be: How simple is it? At a time when vendors, including Microsoft, are once again gearing up for a feature race, theres a good chance those vendors will be fighting the last war instead of the next one. The lesson from the past is not that the vendor with the most features wins; on the contrary, the one that delivers the simplest solution ultimately prevails.

Recently, Dan Warmenhoven, CEO of storage vendor Network Appliance, stopped by eWEEK on his way to offer some advice to the next crop of Harvard Business School grads. Emulating Network Appliance as that company heads toward $1 billion in revenues would be a great business strategy for those students. The future MBAs should pay close attention, in particular, to the lesson of technology simplification that Warmenhoven extols.

Warmenhoven arrived at Network Appliance in 1994, a veteran of the networking wars, including 13 years at IBM. At Big Blue, his duties included a stint as an engineering manager for the Token-Ring LAN business.

Token-Ring had its merits, but it was the second networking topology on the scene, following in the wake of Ethernet. Implementing it often meant complicating a network, since youd have been adding an incompatible architecture to your environment, which likely already included some Ethernet.

As a result, Warmenhovens best efforts became moot as Ethernet won the day. Similarly, TCP/IP, the backbone protocol of the Internet, took root before more complicated, and possibly better, protocols such as OSI tried to barge in. Once Ethernet and IP emerged victorious, so did the quick development of network computing, which continues to expand each day.

The best technology did not necessarily win, but the simplest certainly did. Having learned his lesson, Warmenhoven is sure the same thing will happen in the storage market, where, he predicts, "network-attached storage and storage area networks will all become the same service under the unified storage designation."

I wouldnt bet against someone who learned on the network obstacle course that it is better to simplify than to complicate.

There are lessons to be learned as well from the enterprise IT side. Take John Halamka, a medical doctor who is CIO at Harvard Medical School, in Boston, as well as at the CareGroup Healthcare System. Halamka, in addition to being a technologist and business guru, is an ultralight hiking enthusiast and a kayaker. I recently caught up with him after he completed hiking 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail carrying a pack that weighed only 8.5 pounds, including his BlackBerry 7510.

Halamka said hes learned plenty on the hiking trail that carries over to his job.

"I purchase IT using the same criteria as ultralight hiking: fast, light and robust is better than complex, full- featured and unreliable," he said.

On his fast-and-light IT list is a fervent request for Microsoft to come up with a version of Office that has only those features needed rather than the raft of features being offered in the next version. "Weve asked Microsoft to offer Microsoft Office Lite—fewer features with more security and robustness for enterprise customers," he said. "Does the animated paper clip really add value?"

In storage, Halamka is looking for lighter and more reliable. His networks have been converged to become IP-only.

"Ive standardized on a single vendor for desktops, servers, networks and storage. Although there are best-of-breed vendors, increased features come with increased complexity and reduced reliability," he said.

Last week at Microsofts Professional Developers Conference, Microsoft began rolling out the early betas of its next major operating system upgrade, code-named Longhorn. If the company follows advice from such executives as Warmenhoven and Halamka, what it leaves out of the pack may be more important to the products success than what it packs in.


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