By Kurt Marko, Contributor Information technology has always been a tumultuous enterprise, and every era has its share of inspiring innovation and disappointing flops, however the nexus of cloud, mobile, social and big data technologies means this era of technology history is more exhilarating than normal for both end users and IT practitioners alike. I plan to explore these topics and more in this column, where my interest is to share what’s new and exciting in IT and discuss the implications for business and consumers alike. To kick things off, I’d like to look at the effect cloud services are having on enterprise IT strategies, vendor business models and the two poles of an ongoing debate: is the cloud revolutionary or evolutionary? My inspiration for the topic came from a panel at last summer’s VMworld conference where Internet luminary Marc Andreessen squared off with VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger over how aggressive companies should be in adopting cloud services, which in this context means everything from raw infrastructure like AWS (IaaS) to fully canned applications like Salesforce.com (SaaS). One metric to judge an organization’s approach to the cloud is how rapidly it offloads the deployment, maintenance and operation of existing IT services and applications to online, multi-tenant services and shifts freed up IT resources to developing new business-specific services. At one extreme are large enterprises with sizable legacy investments in people and infrastructure that take a slow (or less charitably, plodding) approach to the cloud. They view it as an adjunct to offloading IT, but not entirely replacing existing facilities, equipment and applications. On the other extreme are entrepreneurial startups whose IT infrastructure consists of a few laptops and a Wi-Fi router and for whom the cloud serves as their entire backend for everything from business applications and development platforms to file sharing and email. The respective poles of the VMworld debate were represented by Gelsinger and Andreessen. As I wrote at the time, “One of the self-congratulatory points Gelsinger made is that virtualization software like vSphere and vCloud have helped IT move the needle on the percentage of time it spends on operations and maintenance versus developing new services and innovating. From a ratio of about 70:30, he presented data showing that, at least among VMware customers, the split is now closer to 60:40, on its way to his stated goal of 50:50.” To his constituency of large IT shops this surely looks like great progress, freeing up 20% of IT to work on things that could actually provide strategic business advantage, speed service delivery, react to competitive threats and cut costs. It undoubtedly came as a shock when Andreessen interjected that at the companies he works with as a tech VC, the ratio is more like 1% IT operations, 99% innovation. Furthermore, he wasn’t willing to concede the point that such extreme reliance on cloud services is only feasible for small startups. No, he reiterated that Gelsinger and his fellow travelers in ‘big IT’ were setting the bar too low. At the time I attributed the dichotomy largely to generational differences: that the 99%-ers in Andreessen’s world grew up in an era of ubiquitous Internet connectivity, feature-rich Web applications, hyper-social sharing and indifference towards data privacy. Meanwhile, wizened IT veterans understood the business ramifications and career ending implications of a major systems outage, data breach or software glitch. Indeed, I still believe there is a generational component to the respective viewpoints, however as I have been revisiting the topic for an upcoming Interop session where I leading a discussion on IT change, my views have become more nuanced. The reality is that large organizations have complex and interdependent IT systems and can never be as nimble as smaller companies, much less a 10-person startup. Its CRM software has hooks into the enterprise directory, email system, help desk ticketing and financial processing systems, which implies that moving from on-premise software to SaaS may mean setting up a dozen interfaces to systems left behind. Things aren’t much easier when migrating line of business applications from internal servers to cloud hosts, since these too likely have tentacles touching many other parts of IT. Furthermore, if last year’s NSA revelations taught us anything, it’s that once data touches the Internet, it’s vulnerable to interception and alteration. The more external touch points you have, the more complex the security and data protection strategy needs to be. To be sure, cloud operators like Amazon, Google and Verizon probably do a better job of protecting their infrastructure than most corporations, but they are also bigger and juicier targets for cyber thieves, having more valuable eggs in a single basket. Plus, cloud providers have more portals to protect — the many network links and VPNs to other networks and customers that malefactors can exploit. None of this is meant as excuses for large enterprises to ignore or downplay cloud services, but they are reasons for a more deliberate adoption; i.e. an evolutionary approach. So perhaps it’s not an either-or scenario. Yes, startups have the means to grow larger than ever solely on the back of cloud services, but they can learn a few things about service resilience, process governance, and information security from the ‘IT dinosaurs’. Likewise, Big IT can add some spring to its step by learning from the entrepreneurial class and adopting agile processes, experimental, ‘fast fail’ attitudes and cloud services. But revolution is seldom the best way to accomplish change, whether in IT or society. But instead of the slow path of evolution, perhaps enterprise IT needs the equivalent of genetic engineering; taking an active hand to foster and accelerate the assimilation of new technologies and speed things along toward a future of greater efficiency, responsiveness, scalability and security.