CXO

Xbox in the data center?

Patrick Gray talks about why complex technologies already tackled by a consumer technology can sometimes be an enterprise's best bet.

One of the more interesting uses of consumer technology that I've seen recently was an article about ESPN, the US-based television sports network's use of the Xbox video game console. Combined with a popular sports video game series, the Xbox could simulate plays for various sports, with commentators describing how a play worked, and the Xbox console illustrating the on-field action with high quality, animated players. Essentially, this living room stalwart-a consumer video game, with some custom coding-produced detailed 3D animations that would have required an extremely expensive modeling and rendering engine. With some creative thinking, the television network spent a fraction of the cost of an "enterprise" solution and produced an end output that was likely of higher quality than would have been possible to develop in short order. Whereas an "enterprise" 3D modeling and broadcasting solution would have required a long vendor evaluation and RFP process, the Xbox-based solution required little more than a corporate credit card and some gumption.

Forgetting "enterprise"

There are many situations where enterprise hardware and software are the right solution for a business problem. Storing critical corporate data on a consumer grade NAS purchased from the local office supply store is always a bad idea, just as running your corporate firewall on a $40 consumer "all in one" router is a shortcut out of an IT career. However, there are classes of business problems that lend themselves to looking outside the enterprise box. Generally, these are business problems that require a rapid, cost-effective response, or overlap with something already available in the consumer space.

Compared to enterprise pricing, most of the products in the consumer space are "good enough" when considered in the context of cost. Expensive, rugged, broadcast-grade video cameras have been available for decades, but the explosion of "action cameras" targeted at sports and motorsports enthusiasts has the lowly GoPro line of camera appearing everywhere from network television, to military applications, to vehicle testing. These cameras produce quality that's "good enough" for fast-action shots and are priced such that they're essentially disposable.

In the IT space, there are hundreds of technologies that are likely "good enough," especially as cost becomes a consideration. I've collaborated with teams around the world using Google's "Hangouts," which allow multi-point video conferencing for free. An enterprise multipoint solution is a significant expense, but for ad-hoc collaboration Hangouts is an ideal solution. There are obvious feature deficiencies with a consumer solution like Hangouts or Skype, security being one major concern, but the cost to secure trivial meetings is astronomical compared to the benefit, just like the case of ESPN and the Xbox.

Lack of customization (and why that's a good thing)

Another major benefit of consumer solutions is that they generally lack customization. They're designed to perform a limited set of tasks well out of the box. This compares to enterprise products that are generally expected to be customized or undergo a complex implication once purchased. For the quick and dirty applications where consumer technologies shine, a lack of customization opportunities can be a major benefit. Your users can get to work in the tool immediately and quickly work around shortcomings. With an enterprise tool and the associated implementation, you may get the perfect answer to your business problem, but you get it several months later at the expense of not actually getting work done during that time.

Consumer-based tools also trigger a beneficial mindset shift within large IT departments. Where many are reliant on vendors and accustomed to big-dollar, long lead-time "solutions," consumer technologies force some creativity and restore some of the entrepreneurial gusto that's been lost in a world of enterprise-approved, vendor-centric "solutions."

While not every business problem warrants a consumer technology solution, areas where you need a quick and low cost option, or complex technologies already tackled by a consumer technology, make great candidates. With some creativity, you can delight users with solutions that get them 80% of the way there, at 5% of the time and expense.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

15 comments
franklymydear
franklymydear

So...Pat... Is a "complex implication" that you mention in the "Lack of customization (and why thatÂ’s a good thing)" the predecessor to a complex implementation? Or does that come later with the during the "search for the guilty" and "punish the innocents" phase of the project? ;-)

primartcloud
primartcloud

Your observations address a divide that has existed in IT for many years. Off the shelf solutions versus custom software designs have been at odds and denigrated by established corps with mature IT departments for as long as there existence.

wendygoerl
wendygoerl

"Your users can get to work in the tool immediately and quickly work around shortcomings." While I'll grant you the "get to work quickly," the trend in modern consumer products is to deliberately make them "unworkaroundable." I can't tell you how many times a nearly-ideal solution is rendered useless because of a feature that was so minor to the developer that they probably flipped a coin about it, but resulted in a disqualifying ( and un"work-around"able) fault.

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

the "consumerization of IT" ended with BYOD

info
info

The odd thing is that the Feds are technically violating the DMCA by modifying the machine for a use to which it was not intended to be put by the manufacturer, no? Consumer-grade gear is to the point commercial-grade was only 4+ years ago. I have no problems with using it in some aspects of my network, especially if it can be modified. (ie. A Linksys wireless router with DD-WRT or equivalent). Most commercial products just don't get the de-facto support offerings, or are artificially crippled so as not to steal sales from the 'better' offerings.

deadly_dodo
deadly_dodo

The very nature of the way Skype works means it is extremely secure, as long as the users don't mix their personal and work accounts; the major problem corporates have is the natural assumption that something tailored for Joe Public will never be good enough at a corporate level which, I understand, is what you are arguing against but even you have fallen into the same trap assuming that Skype isn't secure without actually knowing! Similar thing to do with data wiping, corporates (especially banks) all believe that you have to overwrite data multiple times with random strings for it to be unrecoverable and even then they think a super electron microscope can salvage the data and tend to opt for complete platter destruction; this is a complete myth (http://computer-forensics.sans.org/blog/2009/01/15/overwriting-hard-drive-data/) not to mention solid state memory has no remnant at all. Anyway point is there is too much superstition in an industry based on logic and I couldn't agree more with this article, many businesses could save a lot of money if they were open to the idea that solutions don't have to come in a 'corporate' package.

dogknees
dogknees

"undergo a complex implication once purchased"

awpisani
awpisani

Great perspective on consumer-based tools really making IT departments think. What do you think is the proper balance between something like security (which is incredibly important) and the time and cost it takes to run?

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

Actually the off-the-shelf vs. custom software designs have been at odds for a long time. As a former programmer/designer, I have been in IT for 28 years and along the way, I've seen both and each has its advantages and disadvantages. We had a system that we got off-the-shelf and it was good enough to replace the manual system we had. But generally we knew we could make one better, and we did. Then later a better still off-the-shelf appeared and it was great, and since the creating company was small, changes were as easy (or hard) as our bespoke app. The main idea is that having an XBOX in the data center is not such a odd thing, but sometimes this thinking outside the box (no pun intended) is a good thing. Sometimes it is just proof of concept.

ManoaHI
ManoaHI

This is not circumventing anything because they don't have to modify the PS3. I got my PS3 the day it was released. One of the things you could do was to "donate" free cycles in your PS3 where a research firm working for the feds, would use your PS3's free cycles to create a large supercomputer. They wanted at least 200,000 users to see if it was possible. Nothing was modified, it was there as is, out of the box. All you had to do was agree or decline. I don't know what happened after that, because I declined and later decided to accept, but they said they had enough people. So, no, they are not violating the DMCA. I just watched a documentary on drones. The US military is using the XBOX 360 to set up scenarios for the drone pilot trainees. The trainer can put "insurgents" or other enemy soldiers that the drone trainees shoot. The did find out that seasoned fighter pilots weren't as good as the "gamers." (This I fully understand, as in most plane simulator games, I have never successfully landed anything, I always crash. But I have landed a number of real planes as a pilot. When in a real aircraft, you feel - as in G forces - and have full depth view of your surroundings. But I did ok in an F4 simulator, where the G forces are simulated and full surround video is very realistic). But the XBOX 360 was still used. I do agree that "consumer grade" was "commercial grade" in under a decade, however, but that doesn't always mean that "consumer grade" is good enough. Attack vectors are different and consistently changing and getting more sophisticated, "consumer grade" is not necessarily "good enough" in some applications. For enterprise class, mission critical systems "good enough" is not good enough.

bmeyer66
bmeyer66

As a student in IT I am learning that no security is perfect. Now the question is how to reduce the risk of penetration, and if penetrated the theft of data/ or disruption of operations. I am sure that there are some off the shelf consumer level security products that can help reduce the risk of penetration. Would it be better to use the commercial technology to make the intruders think that they have found something else then the thing that they are looking for (The corporation that you are protecting)? I would look to distract, and delay an intruder just to make them think they where not in the right place.

bkblake
bkblake

What does this have to do with the article really?

GAProgrammer
GAProgrammer

His statement just focused on the security aspect and possible ways to mitigate the security risks.