Should we simplify or diversify?

I notice that our homegrown discount airline WestJet is planning to expand services into eastern Canada (EastJet?). And despite the losses that everyone else who flies things with wings on them and passengers in them seem to be taking, the folks at WestJet continue to grow and make money.

Why? Aside from their infectious enthusiasm (these guys are good – I’ve noticed that it’s just about impossible to be cranky with them, and at hectic airports up against a tight schedule, I can be cranky with the best of ’em), aside from their tight focus on operational cost control (as always, a key issue for IT too, but subject matter for another column), great customer service (also always a key issue or IT, but also the subject for another column), one key to the success of Clive Beddoe (WestJet’s top dog) and his boys and girls, and the one I want to talk about, appears to be consistency and simplification.

Consistency in this case is the result of a reduction in the number of variables involved in operating an airline – simplification is a natural by-product.

To whit: if you’re flying out west, you may have noticed that all of WestJet’s planes are exactly the same – they fly nothing but Boeing 737s – and not a variety of models and releases of 737s, but the exact same plane across the fleet – the same seats, the same interiors, the same galleys – all part of a deliberate plan to reduce and simplify.

Beddoe and his team appear to be steadfast and consistent in their execution – he says WestJet’ll only grow in the East when it can get its hands (wings?) on a couple of more of the exact same 737s that it has in its fleet right now. He doesn’t want to have to train pilots and crew and mechanics on operating and servicing a different plane, he doesn’t want to have to stage spares for multiple different aircraft at multiple locations, he doesn’t want to have run multiple, variable and differing process depending on what type of plane is going where – supply chain optimization, reduction and simplification.

So does the same kind of thinking apply to us in IT as well?

What would it mean to our business if our entire client base ran the same PCs, the same desktop environment, updated from a single, central server as required. What if every server we had ran the same OS and the same releases? No (various flavours of) Unix and NT – just one version of Unix or one version of NT. For that matter, why not just one type of server too, and while we’re at it, a single, standard no-exceptions/no-customizations set of desktop applications? How much time/money/hassle would that save us? How much time would we be able to dedicate instead to improving and optimizing the one set of standards we have, just like WestJet constantly hones its operations?

Reduce and simplify – good advice, right?

So just when I’m think I’m on to something defensible (if not particularly original) to talk about, I go and ask someone else for his or her thinking on the subject, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get myself in trouble regularly when I do this.

Person I’m talking to #1: “So what happens if another airline’s 737 crashes and the Feds ground all 737s of this kind for a long and detailed inspection and or fix – then WestJet’s really out of luck – they can’t fly anything at all, ’cause they don’t have anything else to fly?” Good point. Damn.

Person I’m talking to #2: “I suspect that nature dislikes conformity – it is, after all, variety, evolution and diversity that makes the community strong, isn’t it?” Oh, oh – I’m beginning to see her point. “The healthiest dogs are mixed-breeds mutts, not the purebreds, right? And cheetahs are threatened because they don’t have enough diversity in their gene pool, right?”

Extending the thinking here, isn’t it true that the network most vulnerable to a virus is the one where all the desktops and operating systems are identical, and identically vulnerable?

Does reduce-and-simplify thinking in an IT context build a natural exposure to threat?

Does reduce and simplify mean that a threat to one automatically means a threat to all?

Mulling this over, I’m kind of inclined to think that I was right in the first place – that the value of a reduce-and-simplify approach to IT significantly outweighs the risk, but then again, what do I know?