by June 3, 2008 0 comments



It’s big and scary and has its tentacles spread all over the place. There’s
no escaping it because it’s everywhere, including your scariest of dreams. It
scares away IT managers and gives CIOs sleepless nights. No we’re not talking
about a monster from a horror film, but something that lurks around within your
own IT infrastructure. It’s called the IT Infrastructure complexity monster, and
it grows bigger with every new IT project deployment you undertake.

Indeed, while we’re all busy implementing exciting new projects, the IT
infrastructure complexity monster is gradually becoming more powerful. Unless
it’s controlled, it could actually reduce employee productivity and increase
your costs. It shouldn’t happen that one day this monster becomes so big that
your IT infrastructure starts managing you instead of the other way round. It
may sound unbelievable, but it’s true.

Take a simple example of email. It’s a real productivity tool, but if your
employees forget all their other work and start checking their mails every five
minutes, start sending jokes and chain mails to friends and colleagues, it
becomes counter-productive. This can actually happen when they have unlimited
access to email. The same argument holds true for unlimited web browsing.

Let’s move to a more complex example. You give your employees an ERP solution
to book customer orders, a CRM solution to handle customer complaints, and an
SCM solution to track customer order shipments. They will be so busy shifting
between multiple applications and learning how to use them that they will
actually take longer to do their jobs (and by the way, they’ll also be checking
their emails every five minutes and sending jokes and chain mails to friends and
colleagues!). They will also be busy with other applications you’ve provided
them, like the Intranet to file leave applications, the usual Office Suite to
work on spreadsheets and presentations, possibly an HR system to determine how
many leaves they have pending (and by the way, they will be checking their
email!!).

Your IT team will also be very busy handling employee complaints, running
between so many servers, storage, and networking equipment, monitoring
application performance, storage and CPU usage, handling interoperability issues
between different applications, and doing routine administrative tasks. So
everybody is indeed busy doing their work, but it’s actually more about managing
complexity than anything else. This is obviously not what you really wanted. It
just gradually crept into your system. Now, unless it’s controlled, it will chew
up your management costs and force productivity to take a nose dive.

So the million dollar question is, how do you combat this monster? What
should be your strategy? The answer of course is to try and extract as much as
possible out of your IT infrastructure. But that’s easier said than done, and in
this story, we’ll try to find some answers.

The main culprits
The first step to reducing complexity is to understand the reasons behind
it, and there can be many, some of which could come as a surprise. While there
would be many that are unique to your organization, there are some that are
common to all. We’ll look at the common ones.

Legacy systems
The older your organization, the more complex your IT infrastructure is
likely to be, because it would have a lot of legacy systems. There would be all
sorts of operating systems, all sorts of networking equipment, different service
providers, and applications all over the place. As soon as you bring in a new
application into the system, you’re going to face integration challenges. You’ll
have to redefine old processes according to your setup, and establish new ones.
Add to that the high rate of obsolescence in IT, and you have a lot of complex
legacy to manage.

Organizational growth
Yes, believe it or not, but organizational growth is definitely one of the
causes behind increased IT infrastructure complexity. While growth is good for
any organization, it poses a lot of challenges for the IT department. Growth can
be of two types-new acquisitions and expansion. Both have their own distinct set
of challenges. New acquisitions involve inducting a new company into your
system. It will have its own IT infrastructure, and a completely different set
of business apps and processes as compared to yours. It will have a different
work culture, people with different mindsets, and a completely different set of
processes. Bringing them into your system, getting people to adopt your policies
and practices, integrating their systems into yours can be extremely challenging
and time consuming.

The other type of growth is expansion, wherein your organization enters new
markets, opens new branches, etc. This would require putting up IT
infrastructure in new branch offices, ensuring their connectivity to HO, finding
skilled manpower to manage the setups there, and ensuring that your data center
is capable of handling the additional load brought in by those branches. So
while setting up a new branch may not be too difficult per say, it increases
network complexity, making it ever more difficult to manage.

Growing mobile workforce
While a mobile workforce is a boon for every organization, it has become the
bane of most IT departments. This workforce comprises of both laptops and PDAs.
They’re out in the field and require remote connectivity into your system. For
this, you need to ensure that you have a secure remote access system in place,
which is accessible from anywhere. The larger the mobile workforce, the bigger
the challenge. You also have to worry about the security of your own network
when these mobile users connect to it. They could be infected, and bring down
your entire network. What you need are solutions to secure them. A third
challenge is in ensuring the security of data on those devices. What if they get
stolen? How do you ensure that data in those devices doesn’t fall in the wrong
hands?

More applications
When you don’t have good business applications and process automation, you
spend time and energy convincing the management about deploying them. But when
you do have them, they pose a different challenge altogether. How do you ensure
that they’re integrated and work together seamlessly? For instance, you
implement ERP for automating your business processes, and a CRM to handle your
customers. Since customers are a part of your ERP system already, it would be
only natural for you to expect that the CRM application will jel with it
smoothly.

Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. The CRM application has its own
unique set of features, and might require information in a format that the ERP
system can’t really provide. So you end up creating hooks between the two
applications.

Integration between multiple applications isn’t the only problem. Having so
many applications is another problem in itself. When every employee has to
access multiple apps to do his or her work, it reduces productivity because a
lot of time is spent shuffling between them. The challenge then is to provide
all information on the same interface.

More equipment in the data center
This is a no brainer. When you install new applications, you need the
requisite hardware for them-more servers, storage, power, and connectivity. As
you continue deploying newer applications, your data center becomes a veritable
mess of equipment from so many different vendors. The number of servers
increases, power consumption grows by leaps and bounds, application performance
deteriorates, storage capacity rises and data is kept all over the place in so
many different islands, and much more. So much so that managing data center
complexity is a topic in itself.




Fighting the complexity monster
The million dollar question now is how do you reduce IT infrastructure
complexity? Obviously, there’s no magic wand that you can swing and get the
answer. You need to treat it just like any other IT project. It should have an
objective followed by a set of tasks to achieve it. This may sound very
difficult, but if it’s broken up into smaller pieces, it becomes more
manageable. The objective for instance, could be as simple as reducing down your
IT budgets by a certain percentage. Or it could be to save the organization a
certain amount through better usage of existing IT resources. The rest of the
things will automatically fall in place.

Fighting complexity has to be a continuous process, otherwise you’ll never be
able to achieve your objective. Let’s now look at some of the ways to combat
complexity.

Standardize
One of the biggest nightmares in any IT infrastructure is to have a
heterogeneous environment with different systems, applications, and platforms.
This requires multiple management systems, which in turn requires manpower with
different skill sets. For instance, even a simple thing like the desktop PC can
become a nightmare to manage if there are multiple hardware configurations and
Operating Systems. So the thing to do is to standardize whatever you
can-Operating Systems, email systems, hardware, vendor selection process,
procurement process, etc.

Standardization will actually improve the robustness of your IT
infrastructure, and there are enough management standards out there to follow,
such as ITIL, COBIT, etc. Many vendors have also defined their own IT
infrastructure optimization frameworks and best practices, which you could use
for reference. If for instance, your IT infrastructure is primarily Windows
based, then you could follow Microsoft’s Infrastructure Optimization Model (IOI).

Virtualize
This one doesn’t need an introduction, because everybody is talking about
it. Even leading research firms like Gartner suggest that virtualization will
have a tremendous impact on how IT is managed and deployed. Server
virtualization is already a hot favorite amongst most organizations, and is
being used to reduce the number of servers in the data center. There are other
forms of virtualization available as well, which promise to simplify the IT
infrastructure considerably. These include virtualization of desktops, storage,
applications, and networking. That pretty much covers everything in the IT
infrastructure. Many companies have deployed virtualization. This time for
instance, we received two projects from Infosys and ICICI Bank on server
virtualization. These have considerably reduced the total number of hardware
servers in their data centers, and even promise to reduce complexity and power
consumption, improve manageability and server usage.

Consolidate
Virtualization isn’t the only way of doing consolidation, which is why we’ve
kept this point separately. You could for instance, remove all the different
islands of storage in your data center, and put then on a single large storage
box. Or you could remove multiple rack servers and replace them with blades. You
could go for a UTM device instead of multiple individual security devices. You
could even go for a single network that carries all your voice, video, as well
as data traffic. All this would obviously lead to lesser equipment in the data
center, which in turn would improve manageability.

Centralize
Instead of having hundreds of servers, storage, etc all over the place, it’s
best to centralize them today. If your organization has branch offices all over
the country, then centralization makes a lot of sense. This is simply because
finding and deploying skilled manpower in all the branches is a major challenge.
Many organizations today are therefore moving all their applications and servers
into a single, central data center. This improves manageability considerably.

Keep it simple
The best way to fight complexity is to of course keep the vision as simple
as possible. Keep a simple vision for everyone, so that they can easily follow
it. If the vision itself is complex, then everything else is likely to be.

Drive commoditization
You don’t have to use bleeding edge technology all the time. It costs more,
both in terms of cost of acquisition as well as maintenance. Things get
commoditized in the IT world very fast, so learn to take advantage of that. At
the same time, remember that IT equipment becomes obsolete very quickly well, so
don’t purchase equipment that’s reaching the end of its lifecycle. You’ll end up
spending more on its maintenance and administration!

Recycle equipment
Don’t throw away equipment until its completely useless. You’ll always find
an application for it. That’s because what’s low-end for one user could be
high-end for another. At the same time, if you must replace equipment, then
donate your old equipment while they’re still in working condition to the needy
outside the organization, such as a school. It will improve your organization’s
CSR image.

Enhance current infrastructure with minimum investment

Better integration
Tighter coupling between various applications is the need of the hour,
otherwise your employees will continue to toil with shifting between multiple
application interfaces. As most of the applications today have a web based
front-end, one should take advantage of that and try to consolidate their views
on a single web page.

Use managed services
Finding skilled manpower to manage various aspects of your IT infrastructure
is a key challenge, according to various surveys we’ve done in the past. As your
organization grows, it would require different experts for managing the storage,
security, servers, connectivity, etc. One of the solutions to the problem is to
go the managed services way. Outsource one or more of these tasks to an external
agency, who then take care of bringing the right manpower in to do the job.
Managed services can include outsourcing specific parts of your IT
infrastructure management to total outsourcing, wherein the complex IT
infrastructure, right from the equipment to its management is outsourced.
Nothing really belongs to the organization. They just worry about their
business.

Lastly, please keep in mind that fighting complexity is not a free activity,
i.e. there will be investments involved. Just as you invest in a business
application so that your organization can earn more, you also need to invest in
reducing complexity to save cost. The rest will automatically follow.

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