CIO Trendwatch: Utility computing good, spam bad

Utility computing makes so much sense, it's scary. Spam is just plain scary. Both topics are hot for totally different reasons.

The merry month of May was more like the scary month of May, from an economic standpoint. A number of studies painted gloomy pictures of tech spending, job growth and paycheck size. None of that should come as a surprise. But two other topics heated up the month with news of their promise: First, utility computing, with its promise as a cost-cutting and sensible way to pay for technology. Second, spam, and the promise of its demise...

–- or at least its diminution. Big players from Microsoft Corp. and AOL to Uncle Sam are getting involved in the battle to save the inundated inbox.

An exercise in utility

My wife leaves the house and wonders if she turned off the curling iron. One of these days, an IT manager somewhere will leave work and wonder, "Did I turn off the computing juice?"

Utility computing, or the ability to pay for just the computing power you use, be it storage, help desk functions or security, generated a good bit of buzz in May, with big vendors making plays for the growing market –- a market growing in interest, if nothing else, because the technology has appeal in this cost-cutting climate.

Big Blue's clue to its utility computing plans is the eServer p690. IBM Corp. introduced it in early May, claiming it will better match available processing power and memory with a company's needs. The p690 is scheduled for release this month. IBM also announced a new entry level for its iSeries 810 system and a payment plan that lets users prepay for capacity at a discounted rate.

Veritas made May moves too. The Mountain View, Calif., company laid the foundation for its utility computing strategy with a round of upgrades to its entire software line, including a new version of its Bare Metal Restore product. Bob Maness, senior director of product marketing at Veritas, said that automating the server recovery process is a crucial component of managing the overall IT infrastructure. "Automating routine data protection processes helps companies deliver better service levels at lower costs, which provides a foundation for utility computing," said Maness.

Hewlett-Packard Co. started playing with price tags of its utility computing services. But some IT managers said that HP's pricing plan, based on a metric call a "computon," takes too many variables into account and runs the risk of being about as easy to understand as Michael Jackson.

And here's the exciting news about Dell Computer Corp.'s utility computing plans (this is the part of the article where crickets chirp): Dell said that it has no plans on that front. The company plans to wait for the technology to mature –- three or four more years –- before it reserves a seat on the bandwagon. By then, the Dell interns should have graduated from college and decided to get jobs outside IT.

Dell, however, does like the concept, as do analysts. "[Utility computing] takes best ideas of outsourcing and best ideas of service providers and combines them," said Jeff Kaplan, founder of ThinkStrategies, a Wellesley, Mass., consulting company. "Rather than signing one long-term strict agreement, you sign a subscription that offers flexibility." Kaplan tends to agree with Dell that utility computing will go mainstream during the next several years.

But utility computing may be more than a cool concept promising tech power at the flip of a switch. It may be key to keeping your job.

"CIOs who want to remain in the IT business have to stay on top of this," said Thomas Bittman, a vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc. "Otherwise, their CEO is going to eventually say, 'IBM says [it] can do the same thing you can do for half the price,' and the IT shop will get outsourced."

Sounds like utility computing could turn into necessity computing before too long.

I think, therefore I'm spammed

Spam is the four-letter word of the digital age. George Carlin should add it to his repertoire of things you can't say on television. If you kick off the morning by doing a "daily delete dance" of junking the junk e-mail from your inbox, you may wonder if e-mail is even worth the trouble. You may pine for the simpler times before you joined the Phi Spama Rama fraternity, when junk mail could be fun –- wadded up into projectiles and tossed into a trash can.

We found out in May that Microsoft and AOL hate junk e-mail even more than they hate each other. The two behemoths pledged at an antispam summit in Washington, D.C., to help spear spam. And it's a good thing –- reading some of the statistics on spam is scarier than reading the ingredients on a can of Spam.

AOL claimed that it blocks more than 2 billion spam messages a day or about 67 pieces of digital flotsam for every inbox. Worst of all, spam is wearing out the fingers of your employees and co-workers. Sara Radicati, president and CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Radicati Group, said that spam accounts for 24% of corporate mailbox traffic, and she expects that, by 2007, nearly half of all incoming e-mail in the office will be of the deletable variety.

And just like consuming too much Spam will eat into your antacid budget, too much spam is eating into IT budgets. Radicati said that all the junk on the network means more manpower to maintain sated messaging and collaboration servers. According to her numbers, spam will cost businesses $30 billion in infrastructure expenses this year –- and a nauseating $113 billion by 2007.

Yet more spam stats from Microsoft's chief spamslayer, Ryan Hamlin: He predicted that up to 65% of all e-mail next year could be spam, with U.S. businesses shelling out $18 billion to fight it. He said those costs cover the price of filtering software and storage hardware –- the lost man-hours aren't even part of the equation.

Here we have another case of "One man's bane is another man's boon." The e-mail onslaught is great news for vendors who sell software that serves as spear for spam, much like worms and viruses enriched the makers of antivirus software.

"For enterprises, educational institutions and government, spam is a cost and liability," said Dana Gardner, an analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston market research firm. "There have always been third parties to help, but more and more providers of e-mail are putting in their own solutions." Microsoft's new version of Exchange, for example, will be more spam-unfriendly.

But the bigger picture here includes the potential danger to e-mail itself.

The head of the Federal Trade Commission said that the tidal wave of trash could destroy the very benefits of e-mail if it's not brought under control.

To that end, Uncle Sam may legislate spam controls. He's also asked e-mail server operators to cork the spam taps. Law enforcement officials from the U.S., as well as Canada, Australia and Japan, have contacted operators of more than 1,000 e-mail servers worldwide and told them to shut off the open relay mail servers, which spammers hunt down and hijack to send their mindless missives.

The good thing is, thanks to spam, I have a rocket index finger.

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