If someone does something that’s patently ridiculous, but manages to draw enough attention that it generates a lot of discussion, has that person performed a valuable service or just wasted our time?

But enough about Paris Hilton, Kiefer Sutherland and Lindsay Lohan. In our own industry we can ask a similar question about Nicholas Carr, who, as mentioned last week, has predicted that the “technical aspect of IT” (which in Carr’s world is IT infrastructure management) will move to the Internet, which will become the CPU-cycle-provisioning equivalent of an electrical power plant.

With the technical part gone, handling the non-technical remainder (I bet you didn’t know application design, development and integration are non-technical undertakings) won’t require a separate in-house IT organization any more. Instead, they will become a mixture of Software as a Service (SaaS) applications and business-department-developed code that runs on the utility computing infrastructure.

Sometimes, fault-finding isn’t the best way to evaluate a new idea. A superior alternative is to be helpful and positive — to figure out how to make it work (for a historical example, see “Inhaling network computers,KJR, 1/13/1997.)

What will be required for IT to go away?

First of all, let’s assume Carr isn’t simply “predicting” the success of IT infrastructure outsourcing, as I contended last week — that he’s serious about utility computing in the electrical generation sense.

In the deregulated electrical power industry, generation companies pump 60-cycle current onto the grid, metering how much they provide. End-customers draw electricity off the grid. Their local provider acts as a broker, buying current from the low-cost provider and metering consumption.

This is, by the way, how you can buy wind-generated electricity if you prefer. You don’t really get the exact electrons pushed onto the grid by a wind farm. You simply instruct your broker to buy enough of them to satisfy your consumption. The rest is just balancing the books.

For utility computing to work, we would need a similar metering and billing infrastructure. We’d need a lot more, too. For example:

  • Web 3.0: We will need a grid computing architecture that runs applications wherever CPU cycles happen to be cheapest (with suitable metering and billing — see above).
  • Virtualization: This will have to be perfect, so that the CPU cycles you buy can run your applications no matter what operating system they were written for.
  • Quality of Service: Different applications need different levels of performance. Buyers will need a way to specify how fast their cycles have to be, and without the help of those pesky engineers who would be housed in an IT department if it hadn’t been disbanded.
  • AI-based data design: With professional, centralized IT evaporated into the business, which will be building whatever custom applications remain, there will no longer be an organizational home for data designers. The only alternative is technology smart enough to handle this little engineering chore.
  • Automated, self-tuning pre-fetch: Last week’s column demonstrated the impact of latency in the communications channel on linked SaaS-supplied systems — the speed of light slows table joins to a crawl.This is fixable, so long as systems are smart enough to automatically pre-fetch records prior to needing them. Every SaaS vendor will have to provide this facility automatically, since businesses will no longer employ engineers able to manually performance-tune system linkages.
  • New security paradigm: Sorry about the use of “paradigm.” It fits here. You’ll be running all of your applications on public infrastructure, on the wrong side of the firewall (which — good news! — you’ll no longer need). Think it will be hard for someone with ingenuity to plant a Trojan that monitors the cycles and siphons off every business secret you no longer have?
  • AI-based data warehouse design: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Carr-envisioned future happens as he predicts. You will still want to mine all of your data, in spite of it being schmeared out across the SaaS landscape.I see two choices. The first, almost unimaginable, is an efficient, distributed, virtual data warehouse, reminiscent of the sea shell collection Steven Wright keeps scattered on beaches all over the world.The alternative is the same data warehouse technology we’ve grown accustomed to. Except we don’t have IT anymore, so we’ll need an AI design technology to pull it together for us, performance optimized and ready for analysis.

Look far enough into the future and all of this is possible. Heck — look far enough and broadcast power is possible.

Now, look ahead just far enough that you’re at the end of any useful business planning horizon. You’ll reach a very different conclusion.

Nicholas Carr has a new theory — that internal IT is reaching the end of the line, because information technology will follow the same commoditization curve that electrical utilities followed a century ago.

Okay, it isn’t really a new theory, although from the attention Carr is getting for his new book, which should have been titled The Joys of Griddish but instead is called The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (W. W. Norton, 2008), you’d think he had come up with it all by himself.

Carr, you’ll recall, previously theorized that IT doesn’t matter (“We ain’t there quite yet,Keep the Joint Running, 6/16/2003). His reasoning: Every business has access to the same information technology, so IT can’t provide a sustainable strategic advantage.

That his old theory was fatally flawed is easily demonstrated: Every business has access to the same everything as every other business — the same technology, ideas, people, processes, capital, real estate, and silly articles published in the Harvard Business Review because their authors were once on its editorial staff.

Were we to accept Carr’s past logic and apply it equally to all subjects, we would despairingly conclude that nothing matters. Now, not content with turning us all into depressed nihilists, Carr has discovered (and we should be pleased for him) the Internet and the possibility of outsourcing all of the computing cycles of every business to it.

What Carr has visionarily discovered, while tossing in terms like grid and utility computing to prove he is Fully Buzzword Compliant, is IT infrastructure outsourcing, a mere three decades after it began. Meanwhile, many very large corporations that outsourced their IT infrastructure have found that economies of scale reach a point of diminishing returns — enterprises reach a size where running their own data center costs less and provides more value than contracting with an outsourcer.

But never mind this little quibble. After all, many businesses aren’t that big and data center outsourcing does make sense for them. It’s nothing new and makes no difference. It’s business as usual right now, and companies still need an IT organization, because …

Applications and the information they process are where the IT rubber meets the business road. Computer programs are not indistinguishable from one another. The information in the data repositories they control is unique, valuable, and (assuming corporations are careful about information security) private.

Carr hasn’t entirely ignored this reality in “his” theory of utility computing. He merely waves it off as trivial — something easily solved through a combination of Software as a Service (SaaS, which if you’ve been asleep for awhile means hosted solutions) and … here’s an exact quote … “the ability to write your own code but use utility suppliers to run it and to store it. Companies will continue to have the ability to write proprietary code and to run it as a service to get the efficiencies and the flexibility it provides.”

With unparalleled perspicuity, Carr has figured out that companies can write their own code and then run it in an outsourced data center. Hokey smokes!

Carr’s New Insight is that responsibility for applications will move “into the business” which is why IT will eventually go away. He endorses the notion that businesses can easily integrate disparate SaaS-provided applications and databases across the Internet using a few easy-to-use interfaces.

What nonsense. Most internal IT organizations long ago changed their focus. They seldom develop. Mostly they configure and integrate purchased applications.

Nothing about this is easy. Integrating multiple applications and their databases takes complex engineering, not facile hand-waving. Moving responsibility “into the business” means nothing more than managing multiple, smaller, poorly cooperating IT departments instead of single, larger centralized ones. Ho hum.

Nor can integrating multiple SaaS systems work in a high-volume production environment. That’s because of a concept network engineers but not self-appointed “experts” understand: latency.

Imagine a financial services company. Customer management is SaaS in California. loan operations is SaaS in Massachusetts. You have to update 10 million customer accounts every day with interest computations. The minimum latency imposed by the laws of physics on an ordinary two-table join adds more than 45 hours to this little batch run.

Well-integrated computing environments come from serious engineering. Phrases like utility computing and grid might obscure this fact behind a fog of vagueness. They don’t eliminate it.

I have my own vision for the future of IT. In it, only people who have written code, designed databases, administered servers or engineered networks at some time in their careers will get to write about IT’s past, present and future.

The rest can include themselves out.