March 11, 2005 4:00 AM PST
Perspective: Utility, commodity: IT to follow electricity?See all Perspectives
But that's taking the narrow view. If you look beyond raw silicon and software, you'll see a much bigger industry poised to deliver services based on technology that already exists. What stands between the broad industry and continued growth is not technology, but rather a cultural divide in the deployment and consumption of technology--one slowly being bridged.
This cultural divide is not unique to IT; we've seen this movie before. If you examine the history of many key technologies, you'll find three distinct stages of evolution: customization, standardization and utilization.
In her engaging 2003 book, "Empires of Light," historian Jill Jonnes examines the nascent electric-power industry. At first, she found, electricity was customized and costly. Thomas Edison envisioned building an electric dynamo every few blocks in a major city powering his light bulb. (His first plant served one square mile of New York, and 800 light bulbs, and cost the equivalent of $5 million today.)
Many showplace homes in the mid-1880s, including the Manhattan mansions of John Pierpont Morgan and William Henry Vanderbilt, had their own electric generators (along with a highly trained engineer on the premises to operate them). Some companies even employed a "chief electricity officer" to manage the role of electricity within the business. (Kodak, one of the first companies to build its own power plants, surprisingly still burns about 700,000 tons of costly coal a year to fire two power plants at its Rochester, N.Y., headquarters.)
If that sounds familiar, it's because that's the reality of many data centers in corporate America: They're big, costly, custom-built and run by experts.
It took many years to reach the next stage in the electricity market--standardization--where George Westinghouse's establishment of AC power and long-distance transmission helped set standards we still use today. Those standards (voltages, cycles and the like) enabled electricity to be mass-
Jonathan Schwartz is president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems.
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