Of Mainframes and Rivers

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I started working with technology a long time ago - long enough to remember the mainframe way of life. Back then, a select group of folks controlled access to "the computer". On certain desks stood terminals, and programs were all custom-written by the IT staff. We even had a position just for managing the backup tapes.

As time went by, the business found out how useful computation strength could be. They asked for more and more time from the IT staff, usually in the form of reports. And as that workload grew, the IT staff became harder and harder to engage.

Enter the PC. Tired of waiting for the IT staff to help them, the business users bought their own computers and put them on their desks. The difference was that the users bought "canned" applications such as Lotus 1-2-3, Word Perfect and DBase. Sure, they still "wrote" their own programs to fit their needs, but they didn't have to code. They formed a "river" around the mainframe staff that they interpreted as standing in the way.

Before long, the users wanted access to each other's information, and Local Area Networks were born. And most folks in IT today came into this environment.

Enter the "savior-based economy", where folks sit glued to the television that tells them how bad the economy is, and how much worse it will get. Frightened, they all but stop spending, and sure enough, the self-fulfilling prophecy, well, fulfills. As they stop spending, businesses cut back, and as they cut back, they lay off workers. And along with the layoffs, some of which includes IT folks, goes IT budgets.

And now I see an interesting thing happening. Because IT is asked to do more with less, they are implementing more controls, and because there are less of them, they can't create every new report or application the users want. And history repeats itself - the users create new applications of their own, using small databases or spreadsheets, none of which gets on IT's radar. Until, that is, it hits a performance wall or needs to be integrated back into the main systems of the business. And the river keeps on rolling around the "rocks" in it's path.

Is your business like this? You don't have to post an answer - I wouldn't want to get you in trouble. But this seems to be the way of things.

Now, we could fret about that, or panic and try to control everything, but perhaps there's another way. I've been thinking about it myself, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. How do we balance the need for IT to control its environment with the needs of the business for rapid access to data?

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