Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The 3 Most Dangerous Myths About IT - #1

"Silence is Golden/Ignorance is Bliss"

When it comes to all things within Information Technology, few people outside of the discipline have a true understanding (or interest) of just how things work.  There are many reasons for this to happen -  IT is the only component of Corporate America where the individual components are very dissimilar.  In order to under just how IT works a person has to embrace the concept that multiple functions can exist in harmony while sharing little in common.  Unlike the natural synergy between functions such as finance and accounting, the same does not usually exist between applications, infrastructure, architecture, and project management.

Business is complex enough without having to try and understand the "arcane" workings of information technology.  And so it is for this reason that senior corporate leaders become adverse to having to think about or engage with IT.  Although it's most certainly a trap, the lure of a "Silence is Golden" approach to IT becomes akin to a siren's call - irresistible.  That's where the trouble begins...

Before going much further it will be helpful to show why it is so hard for a decision maker outside of IT to possess an understanding of what happens in that area.  Let's first take a look at the other important components of the (standard) corporate structure.  In general, they are much more straightforward and easy to understand:

Operations - This part of the company is focused on running the parts of the company that produce the final product or service that goes to the customer.  No operational group is exactly the same, but in general the following parts are standard:
  • Purchasing & Supply Chain
  • Production/Manufacturing 
  • Engineering & Process
  • Safety and Environmental
Human Resources - This part of the company is responsible for getting talent in the door, retaining it, and improving the workforce.
  • Recruiting
  • Talent Management
  • Management and growth of human capital
  • Labor relations and dispute management
Accounting & Finance - This part of the company is responsible for ensuring that a company can both acquire cash and liquidity while effectively managing the usage of resources.
  • Internal and Operational Accounting
  • Finance
  • Treasury
  • Controlling
  • Audit
Sales & Marketing - Many people find these two areas to be the determining factor in whether or not an organization will be successful.  If they are not strong, it's hard to understand how money will be funneled into the corporation.
  • Sales - direct, indirect
  • Relationship building and prospecting
  • Developing the company's image and brand
  • Creating compelling messages that will drive customers to the brand
  • Establishing continual revenue sources
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Now Let's Look at the Components of IT
  • Infrastructure - networking, firewalls, computers, servers, data centers, virtualization
  • Applications - databases, server administration, ERP systems, cloud computing
  • Information Security - internal threat analysis, external threat detection, risk mitigation
  • Project management - the non-technical approach to organizing and executing work
  • Architecture - designing, building, maintaining, and stewarding a technical infrastructure that can last
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We've established that IT is hard to understand and "arcane" in nature to those that don't spend their lives immersed within it.  However, the monumental problem in ignoring this area if you are a business executive is that it's always in motion.  Every - Single - Day something is happening that can affect the company in terms of efficiency, productivity, and quite possibly profitability.  If you are not hearing the details about what is happening, the results can be surprisingly bad. 

Oh, you may not hear about any of these problems if nobody is communicating them to you.  But be assured that if they are not recognized and remedied, they will continue to compound day after day until the point is reached where you can longer ignore them.  And, by that time the cure will require tremendous efforts in terms of time, money, and resources.  

Periodic silence is not always a bad thing.  If you have an excellent IT team in place with great leadership, technical, and execution skills then the silence may be a result of the daily problems being handled.  Yet still, it is important not to remain ignorant or uninformed about what is happening with IT within you company.

Remember that in the realm of IT, silence is NEVER golden and ignorance is NEVER bliss.  Unlike the mythical monster under the bed that terrorizes children with active imaginations, the IT monster is real.  It must be identified, understood, and "slain" on a daily basis, weekends included.

Your best defense is always an excellent IT team, starting with superior leadership in the top posts.  These people are rare - the ones who can handle the tasks, issues, and problems within IT while keeping you aware.  They are the individuals who can understand you and your communication style and pass information on in a meaningful way.

Never take the "See no evil/Hear no evil" approach.  Find a great team to run your IT function and make sure that you are plugged into them AND, possibly more importantly, they are plugged into you.  As we will discuss in the next myth, finding and retaining great IT leadership and talent is immensely difficult.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A World Without Data Centers

Normally, talking about data centers would be a guaranteed way to cause people to look away.  After all, who really wants to read a discussion about facility size, "tons" of air conditioning, network routing gear, or biometric security?  Although data centers are absolutely critical to the functioning technology of any company, talking about them is just like discussing road construction. BORING

Now what if I could tell you, definitively, that data centers are rapidly becoming extinct? You know, the ones that every company invests in to house core IT equipment.  To an IT practitioner this statement might border on the blasphemous.  For decades standard practice for almost all companies has been to build/buy/lease space where the servers and storage that provide all applications from email to SAP reside.  To make the statement that these are now rapidly going away might just seem ludicrous and quite improbable.

Let me provide a little context to the whole concept of data centers.  In order to deliver operating systems, files, applications, and other services to a company, IT practitioners must rely on a number of different pieces of equipment.  For example:
  • Servers - the machines that do calculations
  • Storage - hard disc arrays and other machines that house data and/or information
  • Routers - the devices that handle the movement of data "traffic" from the data center to users and vice versa
  • Switches - the equipment that handles bandwidth for data, telephones, and other functions
  • Power arrays - machines that insure that electricity stays within standard parameters
  • Backup - could be tape drives or banks of hard disc storage
  • Air condition units - self explanatory
There are many more components, but you get the point.  But what's more, if the IT people continue to follow standard practices, each data center has an exact clone.  These sites are often simply named "Backup or Secondary data centers".  Put simply, each data center has a failover site.  This fact has always meant double costs for a site that can allow a company to continue to function in the event that the primary site is lost.  The importance of a secondary site can sometimes be overlooked. I was the head of IT at a multi-billion dollar company that (at the start of my tenure) had its primary data center constructed one floor directly above a cafeteria kitchen!  Talk about not quite understanding the complete situation...

The foundation of business continuity, since 1990, has been anchored to a company's ability to continually provide IT services of all types.  How, then, can I say that data centers are going away?

You may have guessed it by now.  The future of IT services, which means fundamentally the infrastructure that serves it, is moving to the cloud.  The concept of a company-owned physical data center was "marked for death" when the first software as a service (SaaS) applications appeared during the last decade.

When you really think about the importance of information technology, it is *never* about the servers, storage, or network.  The importance is whether or not the app/tool/application is available on your end-use device - exactly when you need it.  Given this truth, we now have a reality where whole corporations (Amazon, VMWare, Microsoft Azure, Google, IBM, Wipro) exist to provide the infrastructure that your company needs with better service and lower price.  In this new reality the need to build data centers is no longer a necessity, at least for the average company.

If you had the choice to invest $5 million in one of two things, would it be:

a) New technology that can enhance your firm's reporting, business analytics, and operations (OR)

b) Constructing a building that you will then condition to host a number of depreciating servers, switches, and storage units

The future has never been more clear.  Unless your company is in the business of providing data center services as its core function, the days of internally built and operated facilities are drawing to an end.