Published February 28, 2011

The Greek poet Homer told the now-classic tale of Odysseus. As part of Odysseus’ quest to return to his home and family, he had to navigate a narrow straight while avoiding two formidable sea monsters dubbed Scylla and Charybdis. This archetypal episode gave rise to the phrase, “between a rock and a hard place,” a saying that epitomizes the situation when one is faced with the choice between essentially uninviting alternatives.

Like Homer’s epic hero, today’s CIOs can be challenged to make management decisions between what may seem to be risky or possibly even career-threatening options. For example, CIOs may find it necessary to plot a course between treacherous architecture extremes: overly complex best-of-breed environments, on one hand, and more straightforward but closed architectures that lock a buyer into a single vendor, on the other.

Is There Wisdom in Going to Extremes?

There are tradeoffs to make for best of breed, especially because it can require specialized integration. Alternatively, however, IT decision makers rarely advocate placing all of an enterprise’s IT investment behind a single, closed architecture.

CIOs sometimes accept the high cost of integrating competing stacks and choose to diversify their business risk by deploying multiple stacks and architectures. Large enterprises generally have the expertise and skill sets on hand to take a best-of-breed approach, contends Mark Bowker, senior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group. “It is a matter of purchasing things separately and bolting them together,” he says.

That’s okay, argues Hank Leingang, an IT strategy consultant and former CIO at Bechtel and Viacom. “You’re more than likely not going to be able to do everything you want with one stack,” he says.

Hundreds of years after Homer, “moderation in all things,” was the approach the Roman dramatist Terence proposed for steering clear of extremes. That wisdom still resonates today. “The principal [objective],” says Leingang, “is you want to minimize the number of moving parts; but to be exclusive to one environment is difficult and problematic. So I think it is wise to minimize the number of platforms or stacks that you’re using.”

Some Benefits of an Integrated, Interoperable IT Stack

“A stack that is built for purpose as an integrated stack typically performs better,” says Roger Kay, a consultant and adviser with Endpoint Technologies Associates. Kay contends that if companies purchase a stack from a leading supplier it comes “pre-tested” or in some cases pre-tuned to work with certain hardware or applications. “Depending upon how you define it,” Kay says, “Microsoft’s stack has tools, various libraries, templates, apps—a complete set of software.”

Microsoft is betting that its integrated stack will help enterprises drive down costs and maximize business value—and that no other platform is necessary to run even the most demanding applications, such as those used in healthcare or financial services settings. The Microsoft stack, more formally known as the Microsoft Application Platform, features an integrated development environment that ties together Windows, the Web, applications, and mobile devices.

Odysseus Redux

Poor Odysseus never was able to completely avoid the sea monsters that flanked his homeward passage. Sailing too close to one the first time and too close to the other on a second occasion, he fell into their grasp both coming and going. Fortunately for CIOs, there are practical options that can help them to avoid potentially dangerous architecture extremes.