Interview: Ian Smith, UK head of Oracle, expects IT directors to become evangelists for simple, cost-effective systems that deliver computing on tap to the business.
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The next 10 years in IT will be characterised by simplicity if you believe Ian Smith. Oracle’s senior vice-president and managing director for the UK, Ireland and South Africa thinks there will be fewer suppliers, providing fewer products to IT directors who will manage simple systems with fewer data repositories.
No one can accuse Oracle of giving out the kind of confused messages which often characterise the output of other suppliers. "One version of the truth," is Oracle’s oft-cited axiom, and that is what you get from company representatives like Smith.
"The IT industry has been conning customers for a long time," he said. "We’ve allowed customers to believe that IT is complex." He sees a simpler future. The IT department of 2013 will have fewer suppliers, with strategic liaisons making the relationship between the supplier and the IT department one where each is more "involved" in the other. Alongside this he sees the products offered by suppliers merging into fewer, larger groups of technologies.
"We, for example, have added more and more functions to the database," he said. "We began with financial applications and now have pre-integrated suites where the customer can pick and choose modules. That is the way I see the industry going: fewer suppliers offering broad, feature-rich suites. Smaller companies will not be able to afford the research and development they will need to survive."
IT supplied as a utility
And the simplicity born of consolidation among technologies and suppliers will have its parallel in the role of the IT director, believes Smith. The architecture of the future will be built around a simple, single supplier set-up delivering information as smoothly as a utility like electricity.
"If I were an IT director my ambition would be to deliver applications on behalf of the business users in the way electricity or gas is delivered," he said. "You have to be able to deliver applications cheaply to support the processes of the business. The challenge for the IT director in the coming years is to take all his disparate, best-of-breed systems and multiple maintenance contracts and figure out how to simplify it all, to make simple the provision of knowledge that the business units need.
"It is a shame to see IT under-represented on the board. In the 1980s and 1990s the position of IT director was one to be proud of: companies were not able to compete without making major IT investments. I guess high-profile IT project failures have helped to lose credibility and we have arrived at the situation of every business unit owning information. Now we need to know what is going on, to get customer information, to get company data, so we need to string those systems together."
And how can that be achieved? Smith’s answer is pure on-message Oracle. "Cheap internet computing and a simple infrastructure with information kept in one place can give the access to information the business needs. To get to this the IT director needs to become an evangelist for low cost Intel-Linux infrastructure to bring the business together using web services or pre-integrated suites of applications," he said.
Oracle’s forward view
And that is another thing that the Oracle view of the future includes: a hardware and operating system configuration based on Intel processing and Linux, with Oracle on top, of course.
Smith is unabashed in his endorsement. "I am almost afraid to tell customers of the cost savings they can make using racks of Intel-Linux boxes. We can show ways to put together 16 CPUs in a rack and save 75% of the cost of existing servers, and it is open, robust and scalable," he said.
Collaboration versus security
If Smith’s vision is one of simplicity of supply of computing within the enterprise, surely the business of the future will exist in an environment where collaboration with business partners is key. In this case how is security tackled in the Oracle future?
It is no surprise that the database is the key. Smith thinks that methods of protecting information are well developed and that how you hold it is the best safeguard. "I find the security situation fascinating. When I go to a restaurant I do not follow the waiter when he takes my credit card to make sure he does not scan it twice, and my doctor keeps my records in a cabinet behind the receptionist.
"The non-IT availability of information is very insecure and we are happy about this if it is convenient and beneficial for us. If we are doing business we need to be sure where the information is sitting, and the way you do that is to minimise the places where it is held.
"We need to agree with business partners that only one will hold the data. I am convinced that encryption is good enough, but if each organisation has 50 databases sitting in different places doing different things it is more vulnerable. The fewer places information is held the more secure it is," said Smith.
So Oracle’s vision of the IT department in the next decade is one based on simplicity. But how will it get there? Standards will be fought over as before, but Smith is convinced that past mistakes will not be repeated in developing .net and J2EE.
"If you look back Microsoft can be seen to have achieved its position while everyone else was distracted, arguing about open standards. I am convinced that the IT industry will not let that happen again and companies like Oracle and IBM will let them do it. How can you have enough stimulation from one company alone? We cannot have the enterprise exposed to a Windows situation - the enterprise will die," said Smith.
Oracle’s plan is simple. The question is, how much traction will it retain amid the onslaught of competitors and the real-world demands of business IT?
CV: Ian Smith
Recruited by Oracle in October 1999, having spent the preceding five years with British Telecom
Since joining the database specialist as managing director for the UK and Ireland, he has also been given responsibility for South Africa
Originally recruited by BT in 1994 as director of customer service, with responsibility for about 20 million residential customers, in June 1998 he was appointed managing director of BT’s Consumer Division
In October of the same year, after a change in the organisation, he became managing director of BT UK Customer Service, responsible for the end-to-end delivery of customer service to both residential and business customers
In 1999, he was appointed vice-president of the Institute of Customer Service, and two years later was invited to become the institute’s president
- Before he joined the telecoms provider, Smith was director of business partners at Digital Equipment Company, where he accumulated more than 20 years’ experience in the IT industry in both the UK and the US.