IT Transformation projects are usually driven by the need to reduce complexity, improve agility, simplify systems, contain costs, manage ever growing data and provide more efficient operational management. Arguably, for seasoned IT professionals there is nothing new about the drivers for transformational change; it’s the velocity and scale of transformation today that’s the big challenge.
IT functions have always been constrained by the fact that the majority of their costs are incurred on the day to day operation of their business which is a limiting factor when it comes to finding funding for more innovative activities. The innovation issue has been further exacerbated by the fact that, traditionally when the business has requested new services or solutions, the IT department invariably begins with the question of how do we create this within our existing architecture. IT often has, and still continues in many cases, to see themselves as the governance component of solution design and delivery.
How many times have we heard the phrase “we work with the business to help them define their technical requirements to business problems”? In most cases this is seen as a statement of positive intent, with IT creating a world where they arbitrate business requirement against infrastructure constraint and manage any compromise required between the two. This management of compromise is achieved with greater or lesser degrees of success and is often the factor that defines whether IT is seen as an enabler or a blocker to the business.
The fundamental problem though is that, however efficiently IT arbitrates these often competing requirements, it becomes a constraint. There is a long overdue need for IT to make a fundamental shift from infrastructure based decisions to business value decisions and for IT leaders to build their strategy on the application portfolio rather than where it is located.
Some organisations have seen the cloud as a solution to this problem and have adopted an approach where new initiatives are considered in terms of the available platforms and so infrastructure plans are made on business need at the application or workload level and not just on the physical infrastructure. But this is still constraining as, although the various cloud offerings provide more flexible infrastructure options, few IT organisations are in favour of too many cloud platforms as they see this as an ungoverned free for all. Thus, although the cloud creates more choices, the need of IT to feel capable of governing the estate invariably leads to a palette of limited choice.
There are other significant factors at play here as well. The world of technology is changing and it is bursting out from the traditional ‘everything accessed from the centre’ approach of Data Centres to a highly distributed range of devices and systems. The Internet of Things, Edge Computing and the need to deliver exceptional customer experience with outwardly facing applications are all creating waves of disruption through the traditional closely managed and governed and centralised Data Centre that has been the heartbeat of many organisations for many years.
There are distinct and rational decisions being made by organisations to re-consider where they locate their technology. These decisions may be based on technology constraints such as network latency, the need to place some core technology close to clusters of customers or even compliance driven requirements to maintain data and systems in certain geographies to comply with legal constraints such as the GDPR.
As organisations, we are also suffering to a degree from the legacy of the first wave of as a Service adoption. There was, and still is, an established principle in many organisations to try and release technical debt through the migration of legacy environments to a variety of as a Service solutions. Many of these migrations have seen a shift to Software as a Service but this has not always created the expected efficiencies.
It has shown a willingness of IT functions to relinquish control of the infrastructure underlying applications and to accept that the business will consume a service managed and delivered by a third party. It is a positive first step towards seeing the world as driven by business need and unconstrained by infrastructure but the downside has been that organisations have ended up with information silos with data trapped within the third party solutions. Having an homogenous infrastructure historically allowed organisations to move data almost seamlessly around their estate and to create multi-dimensional views of, for example, their customers.
So we have arrived at a place where the pressure is building to enable a more flexible approach to deploying solutions across an organisation but where we also have a level of legacy sprawl as a consequence of some early adoption decisions that were made in good faith at the time. Add into the mix the increasing choice we have in different platforms that we have available to us and we are arriving at a point where some longer term strategic decisions need to be made with regard to how we design our Data Centres going forward.
In essence, we are now having to make decisions that will create our new Digital Infrastructure. This new approach means taking a more holistic view that allows organisations to step away from the traditional notion of a Data Centre but we also need to ensure that we have some other elements clearly set in our minds as we start to look differently at our infrastructure landscape.
Organisations that have not already done so need to create a full and structured overview of which workloads belong where and this needs to encompass all the workloads. ‘Cloud first’ or ‘all in cloud’ are not useful statements, despite often being touted as ‘a strategy’. What is needed is proper granularity and clear and unambiguous logic applied to all of the workloads. It is possible to start with the ideal world and then rationalise this. This approach may be to apply a default rule that says ‘everything will go here unless ….’. How the roadmap is achieved is less important than having the complete map clear because this is the foundation for the next two critical stages. These two stages ideally need to be executed before any workloads are moved as they form the basis of the new Digital Infrastructure design.
Organisations will need an eco-system of partners. Having spent the previous few decades building, managing and maintaining in house operated Data Centres organisations are likely to require assistance and this is likely to be sourced from a variety of partners. The eco system is likely to include public cloud providers, network providers, co-location and interconnectivity providers but it should also include partners who can assist with ensuring organisations know exactly where all their workloads and data now resides. For some, creating this eco-system will be a whole new venture and for some it will be examining the existing eco-system and testing to ensure it is fit for purpose in the world of the Digital Infrastructure. There is a great danger in simply continuing with the existing eco-system on the assumption that relationships that have served well in the past will continue to do so.
There is also the need to find a way to manage the new environment which could be spread across multiple locations and geographies on many platforms. Effective monitoring has been on the IT Operations agenda for many years and has been achieved with varying levels of success. Monitoring now needs to shift exponentially. Investments made in infrastructure monitoring, which is the one area many have succeeded, is now only a small part of what is needed. Much of the underlying core infrastructure that will be used in a Digital Infrastructure is no longer the responsibility of the internal IT function but is managed by a third party under a Service Level Agreement. Internal IT need to be aware of issues but, more importantly, they need to be aware of the impact of issues.
This need to understand the impact means organisations need business relevant monitoring. They need to monitor the performance of functions and services and to clearly understand the impact of sub optimal performance of these systems to users and end customers. In short, they now need performance based monitoring and they need it to operate effectively across multiple infrastructure venues.
Although this type of monitoring is possibly one of the most complex projects IT operations teams will undertake, let’s assume for a moment that it is complete. IT teams now need to ask what they do when there is an issue? They may face a situation where identifying the owner of the root cause is not straightforward and with increasing criticality of the systems there is little time for debate and discussion between different stakeholders. What is required is deep insight and it is needed quickly and it must be underpinned with effective and efficient co-ordinated responses.
These responses require highly skilled people to respond. There is much being written at present on the skills shortage that is currently being suffered within IT departments. One area that is less prevalent in these discussions is infrastructure as there seems to be an underlying assumption that infrastructure is infrastructure wherever it is located. This is a misnomer because the Digital Infrastructure needs as much feeding and watering as a traditional Data Centre but it needs a different set of skills built upon the strong traditional understanding that exists within the current IT Operations team.
What is needed is an IT Operations model and skills set that transcends the multiple boundaries that exist in a hybrid model. Hybrid operating models are often regarded as a temporary state as organisations seek to shift to a new operating paradigm but it is likely that hybrid, or a Distributed Digital Infrastructure is going to be a normal operating state for the next few years at least. This model means that organisations well place their workloads on the most appropriate platform for the business which is most likely across multiple providers, multiple platform types and multiple locations.
Data Centre Design in a Multi Cloud World is not about the design of the Data Centre. The location of the workloads will be determined by business centric requirements. It is likely that most organisations will retain some element of their own environment within our their management either in an on-premise Data Centre or in a co-location facility and equally likely they will have both SaaS and IaaS solutions with third party providers.
Data Centre design is, therefore, all about the management of the new Digital Infrastructure. Over time many organisations have become great at managing the various elements of their infrastructure. They have great tooling and processes for compute, networks, storage and virtualisation but therein lies the problem. Few organisations have tooling and processes that span these elements. Management is undertaken in silos but the new Data Centre does not function in silos. The new Data Centre also evolves and develops at a faster rate than previously and in a way that is not always within the direct control of the IT operational team. Patching, application upgrades, functional changes and code releases can often be made by the vendor with minimal or no interaction with the customer and organisations need to be able to deal with this.
Internal development teams will release more code at a faster rate than previously and will be introducing constant change into the environment while the business is likely to be acquiring their own solutions at least some of which IT Operations will only find out about when it breaks.
Governance is often used as the big stick to address the inevitable issues that arise from these multiple sources of change but we must be careful about how we use governance. As Digital Infrastructure emerges, so internal IT functions must develop new approaches to governance, management, monitoring and response to meet the emerging needs.
In the next article in this series, we will look further at how to design an effective governance model for the Digital Infrastructure and will also examine the other operational aspects of a more traditional IT function that need to change to enable us to move forward efficiently.
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