Elm trees and IT

Thomas R. Temin

In the 1930s, American elm trees lined many a city street. Then Dutch elm disease was introduced by way of infected logs imported from Europe for furniture. Spread relentlessly by beetles, it had wiped out 40 million trees throughout North America by the 1970s. Nowadays, urban arborists avoid what plant experts call monoculture. They plant mixed tree species so a single affliction doesn't destroy whole tree populations.

Similarly, the monoculture of Windows computers on most desks is what enables the rapid spread of cybercontagion.

Now the government is entering what could be called the age of consolidation. Agencies are collapsing multiple data centers, finding ways to share services and standardizing on enterprise applications.

For instance, the Air Force recently inked a massive enterprise license with Microsoft Corp. covering operating systems and productivity application suites for a half-million PC users. It selected a single enterprise resource planning application for mandatory use by all Air Force components.

The Office of Management and Budget is considering requiring agencies to share providers of services such as finance and human resources, using a combination of government operations and vendors.

The Navy is years into its Navy-Marine Corps Intranet effort, which uses a single provider of LANs for all shore facilities.

Fewer applications, fewer service providers, fewer physical locations. These efforts all make a great deal of sense. They simplify unnecessary complexity, cut costs and increase efficiency'and not in trivial degrees. CIO John Gilligan recently said the Air Force is saving $200 million per year just through data center consolidation.

But these consolidation and standardization efforts also increase the government's risks. Fewer but more widely used processing centers mean a greater chance of catastrophic failure. Single applications can leave agencies stranded. What if Oracle Corp. succeeds in acquiring PeopleSoft Inc. and then shuts down further development of and support for PeopleSoft applications?

The American elm was a seemingly perfect tree. It grew fast, created beautiful canopies, and resisted weather extremes and the stresses of city life. But a little variety and redundancy makes for a healthier forest.


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