By: Gigaom
February 04, 2012 at 15:00 PM EST
Want to build a business? You need an IT ecosystem.
Just thirty years ago, innovation in almost any category was measured in years, but today it’s measured in weeks or months. That cycle will continue to accelerate, especially in IT. So here's how to build an IT ecosystem that can keep up.

Just thirty years ago, innovation in almost any category was measured in years, but today it’s measured in weeks or months. If you were to focus on information technology specifically you could even argue that change can occur in days — and that cycle will continue to accelerate.

But adapting and innovating in IT requires that you have a platform strategy that allows for heterogeneous adoption of technology at each layer of infrastructure. You also need simplified, cost-effective, real-time access to a wide range of partners and solution providers, otherwise known as your technology ecosystem. This group of providers will be a veritable marketplace of vendors that are proprietary and open source, but whom together create a combination of technologies and services that allow the buyer to mix and match for any solution requirement.

The technology ecosystem has always been important. Even in the days when a minority of companies had a single mainframe, you still needed parts, skills, power, data centers, tools, and ideas, etc. But that ecosystem was smaller and moved more slowly. The technology ecosystems of the 60s through the 90s tended to change over months or years, and our systems from then were more likely to be from a small handful of vendors. This simplified provider environment reduced dependence on an ecosystem of otherwise unrelated partners and vendors, but guaranteed your dependence on the one.

That was then, this is now.

The difference today, and going forward, is that technology is rapidly moving to a much more agile adoption, development, operating and use model. Buyers today can identify and use cloud-based infrastructure or obtain a few licenses of a Software-as-a-Service delivered application in a matter of hours. Aside from cloud-based services, there are virtual platforms, appliances, internally developed applications and myriad customer devices that all need to interact, but can change almost overnight.

Some would argue that the sheer complexity of the ecosystem today screams for CIOs to try to create homogenous infrastructure environments. However, the very fact that we’re making IT solutions more portable and readily adaptable means that we must plan for the ability to support multi-vendor solutions at any layer of the technical infrastructure, from the CPU, through to platform as a service.

The rapid delivery of new solutions means that companies will no longer wait patiently for “their” provider to catch up to major innovation leaps. The only way to stay in front of your competition is to grease the technical infrastructure skids with strong management platforms and clear adoption, ownership, and orchestration strategies.

Many software, cloud, and hardware providers in today’s market would argue that they offer a strong ecosystem of partners, but I think the future ecosystem will be as open as possible and also offer the customer access to a wide variety of cloud, network and other services within the confines of a single data center. Think of your IT ecosystem as the local shops near your downtown flat, easy to access and well understood. However, if you’re downtown ecosystem was like the technology ecosystem you would have five coffee shops, three butchers, six shoe stores and so on from which to select goods and services. .

The open ecosystem

An open ecosystem allows for you to select the technology or service provider you like when the opportunity presents itself. It’s an environment where the customer has broad access to vendors and services related to any portion of the infrastructure stack, including wide area networking services and the data center capacity.

Under the old way of building IT, managers built it once, built it to last, and then got fired when it didn’t last. The new IT calls for managers to build it fast, possibly fail fast, and then build it again.

An open ecosystem means that in most cases you shouldn’t be spending years putting in a new technology architecture or solution. If it’s that complex or limited in its ability to adapt new technology you should be using a partner’s infrastructure such as an IaaS or PaaS provider solution.

There are also many options for building private cloud infrastructure, especially for larger businesses, but the focus should be on making it as open as possible. If you can’t taste test an application or new platform environment in a matter of days or weeks, you’re doing something wrong. Openness also helps if you need to move your work, because you want to have as many destinations to choose from as you can.

Many providers under one roof.

But even among open ecosystems there are important differences to be aware of. Ideally you will find an open ecosystem with a large number of different network, cloud, software and hardware providers under one umbrella. This allows the customer to make decisions around adoption of new technology quickly and efficiently. So instead of providing access to one or two bandwidth providers, the ideal ecosystem provides access to big and small players, and can play them against each other to get the best price and services for customers. In reality bringing together the combined customer and supplier community creates greater opportunities for both sides, in effect, a win-win.

It shouldn’t stop with bandwidth, either. An ecosystem should have not only the option of different hardware, and support services, but also different cloud service providers. If a customer wants to get cloud computing from a vendor, the ecosystem provider should invite that provider in. And if someone wants to build their own cloud, the ecosystem provider and data center provider should have an array of choices available for a customer to choose from.

The ideal delivery platform for this ecosystem is a data center provider who can create an environment that supports the needs of enterprise computing, while also lowering the costs and barriers to entry for ecosystem partners. This is an environment that removes all your risks associated with disaster avoidance, regulatory concerns, capacity and security. That location should have access to national freeways and airports as well as local government support that will help facilitate worker relocation and education, while also providing considerations for your hardware taxation risks.

It’s tough to find one place where all the above are available to the customer, but they are out there. Having these resources readily available is like having a Home Depot and a Lowes move in next to your house the day before you start a big home project. No matter what tool or resource you need, it’s all right there, immediately available, with competition, quantity and variety.

In this environment building a business that requires IT – or rethinking your existing IT doesn’t seem so daunting: With all these resources available, you virtually eliminate the risk of being forced into a “pragmatic” (read: bad but necessary) decision. You are free to experiment once, twice, three times, and then put it into production, without most of the historical baggage like “high network costs”, “no skilled staff” or a data center that is “out of capacity,” which have traditionally driven IT decisions.

So the increasing complexity and speed at which IT is moving doesn’t have to be something to worry about, instead look at it as an opportunity to roll with the technological changes without becoming too invested in a closed ecosystem.

Mark Thiele is executive VP of Data Center Tech at Switch, the operator of the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. Thiele blogs at SwitchScribe and at Data Center Pulse, where is also president and founder. .He can be found on Twitter at @mthiele10.

Image courtesy of Flickr user john-norris.

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