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Titans of tech: Why I'll never trust 'em

World is what it is, but I yam what I yam

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Sysadmin blog I am responsible for making decisions regarding the purchase of computer hardware, software and services. I advise others regarding the tactical and strategic implementations of technologies and IT-related services. The financial security and stability of my own company, the companies of my clients and all the associated employees depends at least in part upon the accuracy and soundness of my decisions. The process underlying my decision-making is the source of continued introspection.

Who do you believe in?

The critical question is: "In whom do you have faith?"

Do you have faith in a deity, in friends or in family? Do you have faith in your government, your educational institution – in teachers, journalists, analysts or corporations? In whom do you place your trust for the financial security and stability of yourself, and all those under your care?

I seem to have a harder time of this than most. Neither I nor my clients have the petty cash available to attend the myriad relevant industry conferences. I don't get invites to super-secret, ultra-NDAed roadmap viewings. I rarely get to sit down with the suits and CxOs of the technology industry over beer. Put simply: there is an inadequate amount of the kinds of frank, honest discussion that leads to a greater understanding of the motivations behind the sometimes incomprehensible decisions of the companies that shape our industry.

I'm working hard to make the connections that get me into these events, get me interviews with the right people and attached to the right junkets at the right times. Writing for The Register opens some doors, but not as many as I'd like [Sadly with many tech companies - naming no names - working for the Register causes doors to close ... but fortunately only the doors of the PR and marketing departments - Ed]. For me, divining the future requires reading the same entrails as the rest of you.

As soon as you move from implementation to decision making, you have a choice: accept the advice of other analysts, or do the leg work of analytics yourself. I opt for both; aggregating information from hundreds of different sources and filtering it all through a complex series of perceptual, rationality and integrity filters in order to differentiate fact from spin.

Transparency: We've heard of it

Reading the entrails is getting tougher. Specialist marketing agencies are springing up all over the place. People with decades of experience in "controlling the message" are training an entire generation of highly educated, highly intelligent PR flaks in defeating our bullshit detectors. Each decade adds more hard science to the marketing toolkit; our practical understanding of human psychology and group dynamics expands every year.

Apple built an empire on spin, secrecy and hype. The less they revealed the more wild and fevered the speculation grew. They achieved brand recognition beyond anyone's wildest dreams by very carefully and assiduously keeping silent, consistently turning a deaf ear to customer feedback and doing next to nothing on the analyst/press relations front. At the end of the day it doesn't have a tangible effect on the landscape because Apple is a consumer electronics company, not an IT company.

The world is a darker place when business-critical players like Microsoft start adopting the same tactics. Microsoft is everywhere: from the hypervisor to the cloud, the thin client to the desktop, the server to the phone. You can't throw a rock in most businesses without hitting something it has a hand in, and anything other than absolute transparency on its behalf is something I have a big problem with.

Microsoft is certainly not alone in its importance: "Oracle doesn't have customers, it has hostages." This saying exists because Oracle is in a position where it is the only company in the world capable of providing critical infrastructure. The truth is made visible in the lucrative industry of "moving customers to Anything But Oracle."

Cisco is another name worth mentioning. What they do is unquestionably important; and yet numerous companies are doing great business on the strength of "We do what Cisco does, but we don't behave like Cisco."

I am not the hive mind

It goes against conventional wisdom to utilise or advocate technology from anyone except well-established industry leaders such as those discussed above. The conservative approach to risk management says that the available cash reserves and huge customer base of these companies mean they are not going anywhere for a very long time. They represent a "safe bet", one that analysts, journalists and systems administrators are often and easily ridiculed for challenging.

Here, I must break from conventional wisdom. I do not take issue with the technologies on offer or the perceived viability of the companies in question. Even when I personally dislike an individual product, the majority of the world will end up adopting it, through sheer corporate inertia if nothing else. The Tech Titans are where they are because they make good gear. Even if they were to fail miserably several times in a row, their sheer largesse ensures they will all be around for decades.

My issues with many of tech's biggest companies lie in visibility. Not being one of those NDAed analysts with long-term road maps and the heart-to-hearts with CxOs, I have to rely on publicly available information. As secrecy becomes the norm, separating fact from spin becomes more difficult.

Millions of dollars are spent to convince me to buy products when what is actually required is a marketing-free, warts-and-all discussion about those products from the people who built them. New features and Ballmer dancing on stage in an ill-fitting suit is cool and all, but what I really need is a discussion about bugs, removed features and the user experience. I need this discussion to occur free from the sensationalism of breaking headlines and the watchful eyes of PR. Instead, I have been repeatedly told to simply "have faith".

It is certainly a risk to buy from Arista instead of Cisco, or Citrix instead of VMware. It is more effort to use Red Hat instead of Microsoft, or to port your applications away from Oracle. That said my clients are SMEs. We cannot afford to get locked in to a vendor's ecosystem, only to have a vTax imposed or be forced onto a significantly higher TCO rental model.

If you're a large enough company, you can afford to adopt the attitude that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM/Cisco/Microsoft/Oracle/VMware/etc." A goof in IT spend is a small wobble in the share price; it is not an upset that could cost you the entire company. Small businesses, start-ups and SMEs don't have that buffer. An IT cock-up can be the difference between making a slim profit and going broke. In this space there is no room for "faith".

At the risk of becoming a pariah among the more conservative tech press and analyst crowd, I choose to reject faith. I choose caution and scepticism instead; I choose to bite the hand that feeds IT. ®

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