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Making Sense of Bimodal IT and the Cloud

Bimodal IT is a Gartner term coined to express that IT organizations need to support both traditional and innovative modes of IT solution delivery and operation.  What exactly is Bimodal IT and what does it look like in practice?  How does the Bimodal IT concept mesh with the adoption of cloud technologies and the move towards greater IT automation in general?  In this post, we'll attempt to make sense of these concepts and how cloud technology is applied to enable a Bimodal approach.

What is Bimodal IT?

Bimodal IT expresses the idea of IT operating in two different modes: traditional and disruptive. Mode 1 is traditional mode, which prioritizes delivering and operating solutions to established and well-understood needs in a reliable and scalable way. Mode 2 is disruptive mode, which is about spurring innovative solutions in an agile, fail-fast fashion.  What do these two modes look like?  It may be helpful to consider two types of applications. 

A mode 1 application in an enterprise organization can be pictured as an industrialized, mission-critical application that has been around and evolving slowly for years.  The application (which is usually composed of anywhere from 5 to 10 or more components) is likely running on a mix of legacy (think RISC UNIX), dedicated (x86-based) and virtualized servers (VMWare and perhaps Hyper-V) running in a private or hosted private datacenter, using a mix of traditional and software-defined storage and connected by Ethernet and Fibrechannel switches.  Since it is large, complex, long-lived and mission-critical, the IT organization maintaining it and the developers or vendors supplying updates and upgrades have in many cases been working on it for years and are highly concerned with quality, reliability and predictable performance.  There are many constituent teams that work together in a sort of consortium, such as developers, testers, security and compliance.  The development process is waterfall-based, managed by an application lifecycle management (ALM) suite of some sort.   Automation is scant, and in particular it takes a long time to pull together infrastructure for those dev, test and other teams to perform their jobs.  Nonetheless, assembling a production-like environment for testing, security, compliance, etc. is seen as a necessity to minimize downtime and other risks.  As a result, release cycles can stretch into many months.

A mode 2 application can be pictured as a mobile, e-commerce or web-centric application that is aimed at moving into new markets, improving engagement with new customer segments, or disrupting a current market.  The application is modern to the degree that it can easily be run in a completely virtualized private or public cloud environment, without the encumbrance of legacy or physical infrastructure issues.  The team is conceived not as a loose consortium but as a unified, DevOps team of line of business product managers, developers, testers, and operations folks working collaboratively around an agile development methodology.  Automation is built deeply into the process, with infrastructure as code tools used to manage infrastructure via well-documented RESTful API's, plus tools automating continuous integration through continuous deployment of code into production.

Is Bi-Modal a Practical Concept or Merely a Helpful One?

There is a good amount of back and forth in the industry around whether Bimodal or two-speed IT is truly a helpful and practical concept.  In his article on how IT leaders are grappling with tech change, Dion Hinchliffe argues that:

"bi-modal IT can be thought of a training wheels way of thinking about the very different, nearly opposite, models for IT. In fact, it turns out that to make bi-modal work, we generally need a mechanism for connecting the two modes together in a way that respects their strengths while adapting and transition one to the other"

There are compelling arguments made by IT thought leaders such as Simon Wardley (also cited by Hinchliffe) that to formulate an effective IT strategy, you need a more detailed model that encompasses multiple types of applications and teams that are bucketed into three stages, a "tri-modal" model organized around the concept of Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners, that represent the innovation, systematization and industrialization of applications.

So, does this mean that Bimodal IT is a fluffy and overly simplified concept?  I think it can be helpful to remember that Gartner's core historical clientele is large enterprises, many of which are in industries that are not cutting edge technology adopters and which don't have massive budgets to effect change in a forklift fashion.  These IT organizations have a hundreds and perhaps thousands of applications running in mode 1 today.  Gartner's Bimodal IT bifurcation helps IT leaders facing such a significant tail of legacy applications and infrastructure be emboldened to proactively sponsor agile innovation teams to establish a new set of mode 2 style practices in their organization, while they figure out how to deal with the mode 1 stuff.

What Does This Have to Do with Cloud?

Bimodal IT, DevOps, agile are all cultural, organizational or process paradigms.  So, what do they have to do with the cloud?  As it turns out, a lot.  The cloud is both a technology disruptor and enabler for IT.  Cloud is a disruptor because line of business organizations can take their business elsewhere by choosing SaaS solutions such as, and developers can choose to work on cloud-based such infrastructure such as AWS rather than wait for IT to deliver infrastructure to develop and test on.  Cloud is also an enabler.  In mode 2 applications, with IT Ops and developers collaborating in a DevOps fashion, cloud infrastructure enables automation via RESTful APIs that make infrastructure functionally an extension of the development process.  So adoption of cloud has a lot to do with enabling the new, innovative teams that are described as part of the Bimodal IT approach.

Modernizing and speeding mode 1 applications can also be addressed by cloud infrastructure, though not in the same way as mode 2.  In mode 1 applications, it is more likely that a private cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is the first step in speeding those long, waterfall cycles while maintaining a reasonably risk-averse posture.  Private cloud IaaS offer an automated, portal-driven service version of the manually constructed devtest application infrastructure environments.  This kind of private IaaS accomplishes a number of transformative things for mode 1 applications.  First of all, dev, test, security and compliance teams (as well as external contractors, vendors, etc.) can easily access standardized, production-like environments to conduct high quality processes in a fraction of the time.  An IaaS can usually serve up infrastructure environments in the scale of minutes, as opposed to the scale of days or weeks for manual processes.  By allowing teams to access infrastructure rapidly and asynchronously at any time, 24x7, productivity ramps up significantly.  With standardized, production-like environments available to all teams on demand, quality advances at a much more even fashion across all teams, leading to shorter cycles with fewer show-stopper bugs late in the cycle, and better software outcomes in production deployment.   Private cloud IaaS is the first step for many mode 1 applications, followed by test automation.  These two steps form a workable foundation for starting continuous integration and continuous delivery processes, even with legacy applications running on mixed infrastructure. Granted, putting together a private cloud IaaS for development, test, security and compliance teams is not as easy as virtually swiping a credit card on AWS.  However, for teams dealing with the reality of industrialized, mode 1 applications, it is probably the more realistic path to achieve a significant change in velocity.


Bimodal, Trimodal or whatever modal IT are constructs to help IT leaders take action to make their application lifecycles more agile and innovative.  Cloud is both a disruptive motivator as well as an enabler for that action.  By harnessing the right type of cloud infrastructure as enablers, IT leaders can both sponsor the innovation of new, highly agile application cycles as well as modernize legacy applications and infrastructure to move faster and evolve towards DevOps.


About the Author

Alex Henthorn-Iwane joined QualiSystems in February 2013 and is responsible for worldwide marketing and public relations. Prior to joining QualiSystems, Alex was vice president of marketing and product management at Packet Design, Inc., a provider of network management software, and has 20+ years of experience in senior management, marketing, and technical roles at networking and security startups.

Through his roles at QualiSystems, Packet Design, CoSine Communications, Corona Networks and Lucent Technologies he has acquired expertise in cloud computing, software defined networking and network function virtualization, DevOps, ITaaS, and IT automation and orchestration. He has written for Embedded Computing, Virtual Strategy Magazine, Datamation, SDN Central, Datacenter Knowledge and InformationWeek. 

These days, Alex focuses a lot of his writing around the intersection of new, programmable infrastructure technologies (cloud, SDx, NFV), DevOps and the orchestration and automation enablement needed to make all of them a reality, in both the enterprise and service provider/carrier space. 

Connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter, or SlideShare.

Published Thursday, June 18, 2015 6:25 AM by David Marshall
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