Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Paradox of Simplicity

About twenty years ago I made money helping corporations get connected to the thing we now call the Internet. Before the world wide web. Back when people used telnet and gopher. At that time, you could get a T-1 from the local Baby Bell, but you had to know where to connect the other end in order to access a network connected to the global Internet. Then you had to find a working BIND server (for DNS) and request an IP range.

Back then you needed to know how to configure a device called a CSU/DSU (channel service unit/data service unit) in order to create the actual T-1 connection over which you would run a routable protocol such as SNA, XNS, DECnet, or TCP/IP. After you configured the CSU/DSU, you had to configure the router with a set of configurations we rarely worry about today.

Finally, when all that good stuff was in place, you had to actually know what you wanted to connect to over this network! Depending on the service providers and companies involved, this process could take months.

Today it's a little different. You can go online and order service for your house or office. In many cases, you can order a do-it-yourself kit. You plug it in and it works. Period. That's it.

Don't worry, this isn't just another "when I was a kid" story. The point is this: It used to be really hard to get connected to the Internet. Now anyone can do it.

It used to be hard to configure a network. Now anyone can do it.

It used to be hard to configure a backup! Now anyone can do it.

It used to be hard to secure a network. Now anyone can do it.

Really? Can anyone do it? 

Yes. Anyone can do it poorly. Anyone can set up an insecure Internet connection. Anyone can set up a network that performs poorly. Anyone can configure a backup that fails frequently. Anyone can "secure" a network full of holes.

Anyone can do it wrong and think they've done it right. We all have stories!

The Paradox of Simplicity is this: Technology becomes easier over time until the non-professional can perform the technical task well enough to get by, but not good enough to rely on for business purposes.

It's easy ENOUGH that anyone can create a bad backup system that appears to be good enough. When a client (or an incompetent technician) creates a half-baked, "good enough" network, it will be a slow network that has more equipment failures than a professional network. Maybe that's good enough.

But a security configuration that's "good enough" is still full of holes. A backup that's good enough will probably fail when it comes time to restore. A battery backup that's good enough will not protect your server when it's most important.

You've all heard the saying: Good enough isn't.

Causes and Effects of Simplicity

Manufacturers of hardware and developers of software know that they will sell more if their merchandise is easy to set up, configure, and maintain. Ease of use is an obvious driver. Ease of support is less obvious but also important. If you can support a system with fewer people, and less technically exerpienced people, then the cost of maintenance goes way down. So buyers drive simplicity because it translates into happier users and lower maintenance costs.

In addition, the never-ending advance of technology always results in simplifying older technology as more complicated new technology is introduced. Things get small. More pieces are included together, and therefore pre-configured to work together. A perfect example of this is the integrated motherboard. It wasn't so long ago that network cards, modems, video cards, and sound cards were all sold separately . . . and had to be configured. Now they're just built in.

There are many, many positive results from simplification. I know it's made our job easier!

But there's also a dark side. This simplification allows less-qualified technicians to pass themselves off as consultants. It allows the more-technical business owners to believe they can do our jobs. Manufacturers and developers encourage this belief. So more and more business owners, or their less-than-competent staff, try to do as much as they can themselves.

A perfect example is Small Business Server. SBS (any version) is complicated. There are lots of things going on all at once. The whole point of SBS is to make all these disparate systems dance the cha-cha in perfect rhythm. Microsoft has always had the dream that a small business owner will someday be able to buy an SBS system like an appliance, plug it in, and it will just work. That will never happen.

I assume that everyone reading this knows that SBS is too complicated for most business owners to configure and maintain by themselves. The SBS team has never controlled the development of SQL, Exchange, SharePoint, or Server. The SBS team had the very difficult task of teaching all those components to dance together nicely through a series of wizards and registry entries crafted after each of the component services was delivered to them.

The SBS team attempted to create a much simpler system. What they created, of course, was a simpler-seeming system that was actually more complicated because it had this very sophisticated super-structure built on top of all the other components.

As with so much technology today, you can say that it's really easy to do it wrong. In fact, you can set it up very wrong and think you're right! More than once I've heard a technician say that he makes money fixing botches SBS setups or SBS networks. I know we've acquired more than one client because we started by fixing up a botched SBS install.

When we look forward, simplicity will always continue. The paradox of simplicity will always continue.

You need to be aware of this and decide what you're going to do about it. You need messaging around it.

And you need to accept it because it's not going away.

The primary role of a consultant is to consult, to give advice. Working with clients to help them understand that many things that seem simple are still too complicated to do themselves. If you're just a technician, you'll be simplified out of a job. If you're a consultant, you will help your client build even better, cooler, faster, more secure systems with evolving, simpler technology.



  1. As much innovation internet can do to us, it is secretly a destroyer for some organizations. In the internet freedom is at hand but because it cannot be controlled it is abused.

  2. Your buddy Harry would do well to read this post, Karl. We received an email recently from his camp with the shocking subject "Webinar: How To Deliver a Profitable IT Security Service Without Being An Expert"

    Really? Unless your delivery model is to hire security experts to deliver on the security component, this sounds like a recipe for disaster (and huge amounts of new business for the actual experts who are subsequently hired to mop up).

  3. Good points.

    Remember: 99% of the time, 99% of the companies are not dealing with a disaster. So it's easy to "get by" with questionable solutions . . . unless you're the unlucky one.


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