by Cindy Waxer

Collaborating Beyond the Firewall

Jan 14, 20095 mins
Web Development

Web 2.0 tools can help IT leaders reach beyond their corporate firewalls for cost-free advice and best practices from external sources. Here's what you need to know.

Overwhelmed by the plethora of disk encryption software options available today, Richard Morton, chief administrative officer at financial services firm InvestLinc, desperately needed assistance selecting just the right solution. Morton, who acts as the Ohio-based company’s CIO, required a program to protect the highly sensitive information residing on employees’ laptop computers. He considered soliciting feedback from a high-priced consultant, a seasoned systems integrator and his own IT team. Instead, Morton sought the guidance of perfect strangers.

More on

Encryption Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be: Assessing the Risks and the Cost

Forrester Report: Collaboration Software Adoption on the Rise in 2008

Using Open-Source Innovation Networks to Drive Collaborative Software Development

Why Ruby on Rails Succeeded

That’s because Morton is a member of Spiceworks Community, part of a free, Web-based collaborative IT management application that lets IT professionals develop, share and rank best practices, products, services and reports. Welcome to the world of Web 2.0 IT management, where collaborative tools like Spiceworks are granting CIOs unparalleled access to external brain trusts.

Morton is one of a growing number of CIOs reaching beyond corporate firewalls for advice on IT-related topics ranging from best practices to quick software fixes. Faced with limited internal resources and whittled budgets, they are embracing the Web 2.0 spirit of collaboration once reserved for renegade developers and open-source pioneers. In fact, many of today’s collaborative IT management tools—such as FiveRuns’ TuneUp, Paglo Community and AlterPoint’s ZipTie—are based on or incorporate open-source technology.

“CIOs are searching for a way to save money and to gain more efficiency so they’re looking beyond their own organization for advice, input and access to new people,” says Jeffrey Mann, a Gartner research VP and agenda manager for collaboration. But while CIOs are finding that today’s collaborative IT management solutions provide rapid and cost-free responses to major IT hurdles, there are regulatory and confidentiality issues to be considered when stepping outside the firewall to solve problems.

Money-Saving Advice

In Morton’s case, after sifting through a Spiceworks Community thread on hard disk encryption applications, he found TrueCrypt, a freeware solution earning raves from community contributors.

“Freeware has always been a bit scary to me,” says Morton. “Whenever I’ve looked at hard drive encryption applications, the freeware packages always seemed complicated for end users.”

But “high votes” from fellow IT professionals convinced Morton to deploy TrueCrypt—a move that saved InvestLinc an estimated $4,000 in software expenses. What’s more, because Spiceworks is completely free (the software is supported by ads) and provides InvestLinc with help desk and IT inventory capabilities, Morton estimates the solution saves the firm nearly $100,000 in technology expenditures. “There’s a whole community out there willing to share and offer a nonbiased opinion on the applications that you’re interested in,” he says. “The value is huge.”

Benefits extend beyond free advice from external experts. Michael Coté, analyst and IT management lead with RedMonk, a research firm, says these communities allow CIOs to build a name as indispensable team leaders in tough economic times. “The more chances you have to show off and document how smart you are to potential and future employers, the better,” he says. Although not an open-source solution, Spiceworks was developed using the Ruby on Rails open-source platform. But there are plenty of open-source IT management tools to choose from. Open-source vendor FiveRuns recently unveiled its TuneUp service, which lets administrators take a snapshot of a problem they’re encountering with a Rails installation. By loading this snapshot onto a public TuneUp community, participants can solicit feedback and receive suggestions for quick fixes.

Paglo is another example of an open-source collaborative IT management solution provider whose online community not only lets subscribers swap best practices, it also lets them publish dashboard formats for system, server or network monitoring to the community.

“The idea that different companies would pool raw data and information beyond their firewall creates all sorts of interesting possibilities,” says Coté.

Proceed With Caution

But seeking the advice of virtual strangers also creates new risks. For example, publishing proprietary information is an invitation to disasters such as data theft, denial of service attacks and regulatory compliance violations. “I’ve seen people reveal their entire IT inventory,” says Morton. “You have to make sure that the information you put out there doesn’t contain sensitive data.”

Some vendors, like Paglo, automatically strip content that’s been submitted so that syntax—not data—is shared with the community. Contributors can also opt to have information stay within the confines of their company. However, warns Coté, it’s up to a CIO to create a “filtering process” for online collaboration, as well as strict usage policies.

Community size is also something to consider. “You want to be in a community that’s large enough that it smooths out the bumps,” says Coté. Spiceworks claims 500,000 members. “Inaccurate data will get into the community no matter how cleansed it is, so you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Drawing from the collective wisdom of your peers can sometimes compromise workplace productivity. Morton recalls a Spiceworks conference where a member was rewarded as “a power contributor” to the community. “I leaned over to the person next to me and whispered, ‘Does this guy have a job? Where does he find the time?'” he chuckles.

No wonder then that many CIOs prefer a low profile within these communities, clearing center stage for developers with plenty to share and less to lose. Fortunately, reducing one’s exposure to risk doesn’t have to eat into the value proposition of online collaboration. With the right amount of distance, discretion and critical thinking, today’s collaborative IT management tools can help CIOs tap into the masses for expert IT advice.