Information technology (IT) is really only about one thing - the way information is gathered and acted upon.
IT is about removing data clutter; simplifying what we know so that we can simplify what we do, so that we can be more effective. Inevitably, therefore, IT is about consolidation.
And that means that IT must follow its own logic. IT itself must be consolidated. All the applications, all the hardware, all the networks that IT has given rise to are now so diverse that they are in danger of working against the essential nature of technology - which is to integrate, to create coherence and cohesion.
Tracey Newman, managing director FrontRange Solutions (SA)
So how do we consolidate IT? Is there one ideal way to make every element of technology - the old ones and the ones human ingenuity working with technology will keep bringing to market - operate in a unified way? (We need one way as opposed to many ways, otherwise we do not solve the problem of complexity.)
And how do we know when we have achieved a sufficient degree of simplification? Experience.
Well, it seems that the answer to the second question is - the experience of the end user. We are in an experience economy now, because what has become paramount in every sphere of life is whether any activity is a 'good' or a 'bad' experience for the man and woman in the street. And we are also in an experience economy because people want to have experiences. The same old same old just will not do anymore. People actively want adventure and excitement and - guess what - they want it easily, quickly and cheaply.
It is the 'easily, quickly, cheaply' part of the experience economy that gives us the answer to the first question of how we go about consolidating IT. Only a flexible, integratable IT infrastructure enables 'easily, quickly, cheaply'. So that is the ideal we have to aim at.
Technology research house, Forrester, interviewed 67 enterprise IT infrastructure managers at US$1billion-plus companies during 2004 to find out what the five biggest obstacles were to consolidated, integrated infrastructure.
The answers were: the difficulty of achieving consistent end-to-end application and service performance guarantees, unplanned infrastructure changes resulting in incidents and downtime, unanticipated infrastructure consequences of consolidation and new application projects, misconfiguration of network objects and wide area network performance.
According to Forrester, business decision-makers are no longer expecting but rather demanding consistent service-level guarantees for key applications or services across the whole enterprise. Because, you see, it is no longer enough to guarantee server uptime. It is the end user experience that counts.
Yet, application development groups still persist in throwing new applications over the wall to operations without adequate preparation or controls. Not only is there a lack of communication between people running infrastructure consolidation projects and those in operations, but also between application development and operations.
In addition, bandwidth internationally continues to be expensive. And, even if there is enough bandwidth, consolidation of application infrastructure means higher latency - longer transmission delays because the traffic has to travel longer distances. With companies now starting to deploy voice over IP on a large scale, infrastructure managers need to be able to separate mission-critical traffic from the rest.
So, how do we solve all these problems? Forrester recommends a mix of best practices that include ITIL process implementations for service delivery, development of service catalogues, service level management (SLM) and business service management (BSM), auto discovery technologies, network configuration management, WAN traffic compression, and bandwidth management.
Good advice all of it. But, again, they are discrete activities. Infrastructure managers need to be able to do all these things from a single strategic position and, technically speaking, a centralised console.
The good news is that there is already one set of guidelines and one new technology that will enable you to do that.
The guidelines are contained in the Information Technology Infastructure Library (ITIL), which is a set of pre-written strategies and procedures for running a corporate ICT function. It covers aspects from development, through system delivery, availability and maintenance, all the way to support of the system through helpdesk and other services. It consists of a set of reference manuals written by acknowledged industry experts, commentators, practitioners and theorists.
And it is the only publicly available, integrated, process-based, best practice framework for managing IT services. As Forrester puts it: "For running the infrastructure smoothly, there is simply no alternative."
The new technology that is focused exclusively on making IT consolidation a reality - easily, quickly, cheaply - is services orientated architecture (SOA).
SOA allows software applications to share functionality in other applications, thereby reducing the complexity of individual applications as well as that of collections of applications. It achieves that by breaking down the functionality within applications into separate 'services'. A service can therefore range from performing single discrete functions, such as analysing an individual's credit history, processing a purchase order, or converting one currency to another, to performing a set of related business activities, such as handling the various operations in an airline reservations system.
Multiple services can be used together in a co-ordinated way because, through generic interfaces among services, SOA enables applications (broken down into services) to communicate with (and take advantage of) one other in a widespread and flexible way.
In other words, SOA gives us a simple way of recycling all the genius that goes into creating technology so that users gets the benefits - and experiences - most meaningful to themselves. There is still a but, though. Working your own way through the detail of ITIL and SOA is certainly possible - but it is time-consuming. And if you are a small business with limited IT resources and experience, the game is not worth the candle.
Again, there is a relatively simple option. IT vendors should by now be building their software solutions, hardware and networks based on ITIL and SOA. Which means that, if you buy the right solutions, you will automatically obtain the means to consolidate and simplify your IT environment. And, therefore, to consolidate and simplify your data. And, therefore, your actions in business.
For more information contact Ingrid Green, FrontRange Solutions SA, 011 325 5600.