Bimodal IT, or two-speed IT, is the latest big idea for coping with the fact that not every part of your IT infrastructure is ready to switch over to cloud services, DevOps, and continuous delivery. It’s a seductive approach. You separate the experimental, agile, new development that fits into the new world of microservices, API-driven development, and cloud, from the traditional approach where IT’s priorities are reliability, stability, and keeping the lights on – and you get the best of both worlds. Or do you?
Gartner has been talking about bimodal and two-speed IT for a while (https://www.gartner.com/doc/2798217/bimodal-it-digitally-agile-making), and it fits in with the idea of the Chief Digital Officer; someone who thinks not just about the infrastructure and tools for delivering the IT that a business needs, but also about the implications of digitizing everything in the business, making IT a resource that’s closely aligned with specific business units, rather than a helpdesk that also produces five year plans.
Social networking makes the business hierarchy far flatter, and company executives are far more accessible to the employees with ideas for how to do business better. Cloud services mean anyone in the business with a credit card can bypass a slow (or simply overworked) IT department – along with the compliance issues they have to deal with – and get the tools they think they need straight away.
That helps you cope with customer expectations that have been set by Amazon and Facebook. They want to be able to get information and maybe even buy from your business on their phone, without caring where you’re based, what software you use, or whether it’s 3am and your order system is being updated because it’s the middle of the night. Even the UK government is aiming to offer “digital services so good people prefer to use them”.
A CDO – or a realistic CIO – can take advantage of these trends using cloud services for agility and scale and building new systems that are automated so you can update frequently and react quickly to issues (two of the key benefits of a DevOps approach). However, they still have to deal with the ERP system that runs the business, the dozens of different systems for ordering, shipping and support that have to feed into the agile new ecommerce system, and the fact that you still have to deploy, manage, and patch all the desktops and servers you have in the business. If you’re only thinking about the digital future, your infrastructure present can start to look like a liability, but it’s not going away. You need both high-speed and service IT.
Done well, bimodal IT recognises the reality of both worlds, but it takes a lot of planning, because you can’t just write off the technical debt you already have. New systems built in the nimble, automated, micro services, and containers world of ‘mode two’ IT, that combines cloud services and APIs with mobile apps and big data might be more efficient, and they’re certainly more attractive to developers. Nonetheless, you can’t assume that you’re going to migrate systems from one mode to the other. Some systems will be in the reliable, stable, ‘mode one’ world for ever. No insurance company will ever switch off their mainframe because why recreate the policy engine when it’s a sunk cost?
That means you risk institutionalising a tension between the two modes, and it’s unclear whether every business will want systems to stay in the fluid, agile DevOps world continually. It may be that some of those systems will mature and move over to the reliable, stable, mode one world at some point, where most of DevOps is operations. The stability of a cloud service depends on the agility of being able to move fast, both to introduce new features and to fix problems, moving from one mode to another is a skill itself. That’s why hybrid cloud projects are both so popular and so problematic;you can’t give traditional IT services cloud scale and reliability just by running them in a virtual machine using cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).
One option for making these transitions work is the ‘trimodal’ IT approach proposed by IT strategist Simon Wardley, best known for his techniques for mapping out the way the value chain of businesses changes as they evolve (http://www.wardleymaps.com/). He suggests taking the work of the ‘mode two’ teams and handing it over, not to the people who look after your stable, reliable mode one IT infrastructure, but to an intermediate group who does the work of maturing it so it can become a commodity. Think of the three groups as pioneers exploring the frontier, settlers who move in after the pioneers to create towns, and town planners who make those established towns run well.
Whether you pick a two-tier system, a three-tier system, or some other method of dealing with the different approaches to IT that your business is going to keep using, what matters is being clear that different pieces of your IT approach have to be built and managed differently.
Mary Branscombe is a freelance technology journalist for a wide range of sites. She has been a technology writer for more than two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the Web, and most things in between, from consumer and small business technology, to enterprise architecture and cloud services. She also dabbles in mystery fiction about the world of technology and startups. Visit www.marybranscombe.com or follow @marypcbuk on Twitter.