Standardization: Bathrooms vs. Sporks

Done right, a standard is helpful. You can rely on it, make assumptions using it, and get things done faster. Done wrong and it’ll be the square peg that has to fit into the round hole. The idea of a standard is that you minimize the variations you’ll encounter. You might have to embrace certain variations, though, in order for your standard to be useful, and therefore popular.

Take the spork. You know, a spoon with mini fork-like tines at the end, popular at Taco Bell. It is a miserable fork, and a crappy spoon, because it tries too hard to be more efficient.

Take the bathroom. You could have one standard, the toilet, for both men and women. Or you could create two standards, toilet and toilet/urinal, for both men and women. An extra optimization for a different user interface.

If you look more closely (in the figurative sense) the bathroom is an excellent example of a pair of standards, in that one is just an extension of the other. Embrace and extend, only don’t extend a lot all over the place. Extend just once, or maybe twice, but keep it manageable.

I’m helping a company right now who wants to standardize on one version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). They’re running a bunch of ancient Red Hat Linux, some Fedora Core, and a couple of RHEL AS 3 machines. When I found them they were heading towards the least common denominator of RHEL AS 3 because it would be the easiest to port old code to. Except they were getting in all sorts of fights with some of their development staff because they’ve got some new homegrown apps that need MySQL 4, which isn’t in RHEL AS 3, and they want to stick to vendor-supplied software.

When you buy a license to RHEL, you get it for the product line, not for a version of the product. So why not standardize on both RHEL AS 3 and RHEL AS 4? Instead of inventing a spork, invent a bathroom. You can share lots of the parts of the standard configurations, extend the specific parts you need extended, and then deploy the right OS version for the task at hand.

Seems simple, but in this case the folks making the decision had been doing some research and they thought they wanted a single standard operating environment (SOE) because a single SOE is often touted as the holy grail of IT management. It can be very useful, but not if it hamstrings you in the process. Use your head, build bathrooms, not sporks.