Once upon a time, there were two very separate worlds of technology.
The first was the traditional world of enterprise IT, with computing devices and applications delivered and controlled by the corporate CIO. Technology decisions were made with the stability and security of the company at the top of mind. Users happily - or not so happily, in many cases - went along with those decisions because they didn't have much choice. Everything had to be buttoned up tighter than a virtual drum. If projects slipped a few months, well, that was just the price of getting it right. The mantra? No one ever got fired for buying IBM. Or Cisco. Or Microsoft. Or whatever the "safe" vendor might be.
And then came the wild and woolly world of web startups and technology companies like Google, Amazon, and Facbook. Companies where stability was a pipe dream and demand could scale to astronomical levels in a heartbeat. In a never-ending quest to satisfy billions of incredibly demanding customers amidst cut-throat competition, a week's delay in shipping a new app or upgrade - or a few seconds in user response time - could be fatal.
Web companies are now the bellwether
The two worlds employed vastly different tactics in the service of very different goals, and many enterprise IT folks liked to dismiss the web companies as flighty and undisciplined, not subject to the rigors of "real-world" computing as they understood it.
But now that those scrappy little "startups" are running bigger data centers and networks than just about anyone else, execs at both tech vendors and old-line corporations are looking to those web companies as the bellwethers for enterprise IT.
"All the new ideas start at web companies, then move to IT," as one exec told me. "Web companies are the future of the enterprise. Keep your eyes on what they're doing now and you'll have a good idea of what the future holds for enterprise IT." The classic example: "Linux was once wacky," he said, "but now even staid companies do Linux."
That progression holds true thoughout the open source community. Web companies pioneered using Apache to power their web servers, for example, and now almost everyone does it. Technologies like Hadoop and OpenStack are following similar trajectories.
Hadware and networking, too
The concept extends to hardware as well. The Open Compute Project, which creates open source standards to allow the use of cheap commodity servers, is largely championed by Facebook.
On the networking side, the needs of the web companies and the giant cloud service providers like Amazon and RackSpace are now driving networking innovation. They're the ones using technologies like Software Defined Networking and Cloud Orchestration to deal with enormous volumes of traffic.
Just as the mobile revolution and the consumerization of IT has turned enterprise technology from a leader into a follower on the device side of the equation, big data and cloud computing are doing the same on the back end.
On the one hand, losing technological pre-eminence to a buch of upstart web pipsqueaks has gotta hurt. On the other hand, it might be nice to let someone else get sliced up by the bleeding edge for a while, leaving enterprise IT to become a "fast follower" and learn from someone else's mistakes for a change.