IT moves beyond plumbing

At its European user forum in Monte Carlo last week, Hewlett-Packard launched a range of products which confirm that it expects...

At its European user forum in Monte Carlo last week, Hewlett-Packard launched a range of products which confirm that it expects to see IT promoted to a key position within the business, rather than remaining a cost centre. Antony Adshead reports

In Monte Carlo last week, Hewlett-Packard introduced more than 50 new products in an attempt to woo IT departments to its software strategy.

Core to HP's thinking is the idea that the role of corporate IT is changing - the computer department is seen less as a maintenance team to support an infrastructure and more as a service group able to bolster business performance.

Although the message may appear confused by marketing mumbo-jumbo, it has resonated with both analyst and business communities.

Essentially HP's new offerings build on its range of systems management software. New Openview products - including a tool, dubbed Integrated Service Assurance, which provides alerts and reporting based on service level agreements - were part of the launch.

Bill Russell, vice-president and general manager of HP's software solutions organisation, said HP viewed the role of IT as changing to being a service. "The IT department used to be a cost centre - it reported to the financial director and was viewed as an expense. Now IT is impacting directly on the business," he said.

"We announced our strategy one year ago - now we are moving to execution. The announcements are to enable those in the datacentre to fulfil a role where IT is a central contribution to the business. You have to deliver a service to your customers - that can include internal and external systems and could be over systems that might extend beyond your own."

Russell's comments reflect the increasing tendency to view the IT department as a service provider to its customers in business units. The network and the appliances which deliver computing power to the business have historically tended to be seen as infrastructure - as the "plumbing" - a vital, but dull contribution that is unmeasurable to the business.

This is changing. In an era of profit centres, cost centres and outsourcing, IT is increasingly being called on to measure its contribution. And in many cases this is more than simply providing the plumbing.

As all business is becoming e-business, the contribution of IT can come to the fore and provide competitive advantage. Amazon, for example, is a company whose business relies solely on the ability of IT to give its customers a speedy and efficient service, while the physical aspects of fulfilment are outsourced.

Even companies that do not sell products directly over the Web will use it to provide tangible benefit to customers. For example, Vodafone UK is a company where dial-up and Web-based customer interaction is mission critical.

It has been using its HP Openview software to monitor and manage its entire network of HP, Compaq and Sun systems that allow customers to top up Pay-as-you-talk mobile phones.

Since the end of last year, the IT department has begun to operate as a service to its internal customers.

By generating high-level views of provision of service on customer-facing systems the IT department is able to give the business a picture of levels of customer satisfaction and boost its profile into the bargain.

Iain Tandy, corporate and information systems team leader for Vodafone UK, said that the move toward a service ethos is a recent one which has partly been brought on by the threat of competition from outside.

"With Pay-as-you-talk, where customers enter their details on the Web site, we have not until recently been able to show the business how well IT is providing that service for them.

"The customer care managers have never known whether we've been providing a good service or not. The directors can now see from a very high level how the service is doing," he said.

IT is now going out into the business at Vodafone UK and asking what it can do for internal customers and what type of information it can provide in the form of reports on service provision.

"We've been going back to the customer and reviewing the alerts, asking them 'Do you need this alert generated every five minutes?' If not we can stop generating it and can get away with fewer staff monitoring things.

"It is no longer a case of simply having a box up and running but being able to say, 'This is what the service is doing - we are allowing the business to connect to 7,000 subscribers an hour'," said Tandy.

There is a drive to raise awareness of the IT department in case there is competitive tendering in future, he said.

Tim Jennings, an analyst with the Butler Group, sees the rise of an internal service ethos. "It is very much a growing phenomenon, spurred on by the advent of ASP technologies, and thin-client browser-based delivery. Although the ASP model itself may not have taken off for external providers, the technology that supports it is finding a niche for an internal ASP-style delivery of IT services," he said.

"The benefits are that it makes the IT department more accountable and more easily measurable as a cost centre. Second, it clarifies the role of the IT department as central to the organisation.

"The risk is possibly that it introduces a level of bureaucracy between the IT department and its customers," added Jennings.

But whatever the pros and cons, the greater ability of network management software to present performance metrics to the business is with us. To a forward-thinking IT department this can only be a good thing as it provides vital ammunition in an increasingly competitive environment show a clear relationship between plumbing and profits.

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