Permanent IT

Permanence isn't the first thing that pops into your head when you think about information technology. If anything, just the opposite comes to mind - change, flux, chaos, upheaval. Those are the traits we associate with IT, especially in these days of Internet time.

It's easy to be seduced by best-of-breed or cutting edge technology when there are promises of huge returns from a quick competitive advantage. Yet, for quite a few of you, resisting the hottest new thing from Silicon Valley is part of the job. Designing and building systems that will last for a very long time is your bottom line.

I was reminded of this last week when I visited Lloyd Thorpe, regional manager of the Information Systems and Services Division at the Oregon Department of Corrections, and his technical support analyst, John Taylor.

We were standing outside the gatehouse of the formidable Two Rivers Correctional Institution, a high-tech medium-security prison perched on the basalt bluffs above the Columbia River. Thorpe said most of the IT infrastructure inside the 1-year-old concrete-and-steel facility is intended to last until 2100. As Taylor put it, "Taxpayers don't like us to go back and ask for money to do upgrades."

But it's not just taxpayers who demand that IT think long term. Customers do, too. The Boeing Co. develops systems to manage information with 90- to 100-year life spans to match the longevity of its product lines.

Christopher Kent, the company's vice president of computing and network operations, points to the 747 as an example. Design of the airliner began in 1960, production will continue until around 2020, with the last planes built seeing use for another 30 years -- at least. That means Kent is responsible today to assure that all 747 data will be available to the planes' owners 50 years hence. His counterparts at General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Ingersoll-Rand and other manufacturers that make equipment that stands the test of time are all doing the same thing.

Folks like Kent, Taylor and Thorpe are always looking deep into the future. That means they seldom fall victim to vendors' breathless pronouncements of the next big breakthrough, that "revolutionary" new product that will change everything, if only for a moment. They look at not only what works now, but what will likely work in the face of human error, natural disaster, technological change and time itself. Fads, trends and change for its own sake doesn't interest them. What they want is something with a future. A long one.

This story, "Permanent IT" was originally published by Computerworld.

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