With a new year fast approaching, it’s time to start making some predictions about the future. While the flying cars and robot assistants we have been promised since childhood likely will not arrive on the scene in the coming months, one nascent trend that will shape IT management for years to come is increasingly gaining traction: abstraction.

The concept of abstraction is a familiar one to programmers and engineers. Simply put, abstraction separates an activity from the detailed happenings occurring at a lower level. For example, if a developer is creating a new corporate web application, she need not worry whether the bits and bytes are flying through the air over a satellite network, or plumbing the depths of the oceans traveling through undersea cables. For the application programmer, these technical nuances are handled by layers of functionality that isolate her from the details at the lower level, abstracting her application from these lower-level functions.

While this technology is nothing new in application development, technologies like virtualization are bringing the concept of abstraction to the forefront of IT management. While many tout virtualization’s “green” credentials, or increased efficiency, it is virtualization’s ability to abstract IT management one step further from the boxes and wires that actually run applications that will have the biggest impact on corporate IT and is a harbinger of things to come. With a virtualized infrastructure in place, IT management has a pool of computing power that it can access to run business applications, and need not be concerned with the details of the underlying hardware, or things like individual server capacity planning and sizing. Instead, the focus is shifted to managing a library of applications that are abstracted from the underlying infrastructure.

Areas where this concept of abstraction abounds are becoming increasingly prevalent. Even the lowly telephone, whose functionality was tied to the underlying medium of copper wires has now been abstracted, and the latest phones do everything from provide rudimentary web browsing to videoconferencing now that they are freed from the constraints of the underlying medium.

A Tale of Two ITs

What this change will require is the division of IT into two broad areas: the first being maintaining the infrastructure beneath the abstraction layer, and the second being conceptualizing and producing the services that sit atop this infrastructure. Traditional, IT has focused on the former, considering itself an internal utility and monitoring its performance with metrics like uptime. The more valuable area, and that which will grow increasingly important in the future, is the latter.

One of the more interesting nuances of this shift is that certain functions below the abstraction layer can be provided by different parties. While any allusion to outsourcing will likely elicit a collective groan from the IT community, application programming itself has followed the same path. Few companies create their own database server, or something as complex as an operating system or hardware drivers, in effect, sourcing low-level functionality from somewhere else. As this abstraction layer moves further up the chain, the trend will only continue. The silver lining for corporate IT is that its focus shifts away from the operational, and more towards determining how to connect and deploy the various technologies it can now quickly and cheaply access as they are further abstracted. Instead of a cadre of high-tech general contractors, corporate IT becomes a group of architects and designers.

Management of this changing IT organization becomes more like that of a standalone company rather than a business unit, with operational aspects and more strategic facets combining to produce an output. For the CIO, this means identifying subordinates that can tackle these diverse areas, which require different skills to effectively manage, yet are critically dependent on each other. All the infrastructure in the world does no good if there are not compelling services built on top of it, and the world’s most wonderful application does little good if the underlying technical functionality is constantly broken or inefficient. While most CIOs are accustomed to the operational role they have traditionally filled, now is the time to look to the future and focus on your strategic chops. Possessing an ability to understand increasingly abstracted technology will no longer be enough. The CIO, and their IT organization, must see how to combine these technologies into novel and compelling business applications that help their company capture new markets, acquire and maintain customers, and deliver new products and services. All this, at least until our robotic assistants take over so we have more time to spend in our flying cars.


Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.