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June 8, 2015updated 21 Oct 2016 5:50pm

Can CIOs make long term decisions?

Interview: John Engates CTO Rackspace on re-invention and disruption in IT strategy and career planning

By Sam

Rackspace – we don’t provide data centres, we consume data centres.

John Engates, Rackspace CTO says the reason Rackspace does not attend data centre conferences is because it is a consumer of data centres not a developer of data centre assets.

Rackspace is not a collocation company. Colocation being a commercial data centre sector term for multi-tenancy facilities.

"One of the misconceptions about Rackspace is that it is assumed that we’re in the colo business. Years ago, colo was the model but we were never a data centre provider in the power, space and cooling sense. Rackspace was always about hosted services, servers, patching, connectivity and other value added services. We get lumped in with the data centre operators because it is a category of industry and analysts group us together. We are more of a consumer of data centres than a provider of data centres. In the early days we built our own or bought from firms who lost out in the dot com bust but we never competed with Digital Realty or Du Pont Fabros – we are a consumer of their products. Even Equinix is a supplier because of its peering and connectivity offerings," he says.

The colo mix up, says Engates goes back to the genesis of the company. Rackspace built its own data centres, it cobbled together facilities from users and other commercial companies.

Engates accepts that the confusion in the marketplace is in part caused by the activities of data centre industry players as they shift propositions in search of revenue and value. Wholesale data centre suppliers want to move into space traditionally the preserve of retail. They all want to sell to Rackspace, they want to sell to the cloud providers and now they want to sell small parcels of data centres to smaller companies.

"If you are Racksapce," says Engates, "everyone in the data centre space looks at us as a consumer. And that’s ok because we are a big customer and one who is pretty savvy. We need lots of space and know how to get a good deal."

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But confusion and choice stretches far beyond the infrastructure level.

It reaches all parts of the industry. Rackspace conducted a survey which revealed just how much pressure is in the market.

Engates says: "The survey was born out of so much choice and new innovation. Take the relatively simple area of databases, we had Oracle, mysql, Sequel Server. Now we have a plethora of choices, databases, analytics and scale out offerings. There is not even one, but two, three or four different multiple categories in each profile. Add to that SAAS and how traditional software is in transition to SAAS in private, hybid, co-mingled environments."

This has led, to it becoming harder than ever to make long range decisions.

"The thing you start to ask yourself when planning for long term is who is in charge of the decision. It was once the CIO who would put a plan together for 3-5 yrs based on different factors such as price, vision, roadmap. He or she would pick a couple of vendors and have a backup plan."

What’s flipped is how and where the decisions get made. How much budget has shifted to the chief marketing officers what kind of tools to use and developers being more in the driving seat.

"Developers say we want tools that help us iterate fast. We want to use Python and a bit of Openstack and cloud. But Openstack, [Rackspace is a founder of he movement] is only five years old in its entirety, that’s how rapidly things can change," he says.

All of that has thrown a wrench into strategic long term planning.

"No one saw the shift in how software would be built, the mobile revolution or shift to digital in internet of things and commerce. The timeframe has shortened," Engates says.

Does this mean traditional companies are in danger?

"I do think those bigger enterprises need to embrace the strategies that the born in the cloud have adopted," says Engates. "You have to embrace similar tools Facebook or Google."

The reason for this is that they too must maintain the pace of innovation. They want to give the same experience, attract talent, give them the tools, for example to take advantage of big data. They have to adopt that mentality – otherwise they wont’ keep up

Attracting talent is key. At the recent Openstack conference Engates says he was surprised by the presence of so many end user companies who could be characterised as being the older, more traditional type IT shops. These companies attended precisely because they didn’t want to be seen as an old fashioned IT shop. The danger being that they will be unable to attract and retain talent.

And it is also true that for the individual the market has shifted. A 12-15 year career investment in a platform is no longer a sensible approach. The question to ask is are you a full stack developer working on AWS or Azure, working on continuous integration, working in the devops chain.

"IT is now a whole array of different combinations and it is very hard to pick a discipline. It could shift under your feet," he says.

In the game of constant reinvention it sounds not unlike the data centre market.

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