The role of Datacenters

The State of Play

Current Enterprise ICT Environments are a mix of various technology stacks.  Critical and second-tier systems are from different eras.  A mix of modern and legacy applications sit alongside each other.  The common challenges are security, manageability and integration of disparate parts.  There is some use of public cloud services, but most applications are hosted in on-premises or third-party datacenters.  Against this is the demand from the business for more responsive service provision, innovative use of data to solve problems and relentless downward pressure on spending.  This complexity and conflicting demands have inherent risk and ICT departments across the world are wrestling with their response.

ICT departments are attempting to reduce their exposure to technical debt, operational risk and costs.  This could be called “Getting out of IT”.  It means still delivering applications and services to the business but avoiding the necessity of owning the risk.  This can be achieved in two main ways:

  • Outsourcing.  The risk of operating the environment is handed to a third party with a series of service level agreements the business accepts.  While this works the reality is that ICT still wears the pain and risk when services fail.  Complexity is not reduced it is merely abstracted.
  • Software as a Service (SaaS).  Applications become the commodity rather than infrastructure.  A tapestry of services is purchased from software vendors and services providers.  ICT’s role is to integrate these higher-level components.  This places risk where it is most easily mitigated, with the software vendor themselves.

It is not an either-or scenario.  Generally, there is a mix of both approaches with a progressive move towards SaaS over time.

How should we deliver services?

The business currently consumes Software as a Service already.  That is how they think of it despite ICT departments having to deal with all the problems.  Applications the business uses are the top of a complex stack of services.  The key to a successful transition to lower risk and cost is to choose which parts of the stack you need to be responsible for and which should be consumed as a service.  The best place an ICT department can position itself is where it provides the maximum value to the business and its activities for the lowest cost.

The Application Delivery Stack shows, for each model where the primary responsibilities lie.  This stack can be used to evaluate delivery models for the whole environment or for individual applications.

Application Delivery Stack

DIY Model

The ICT department owns everything in the stack.  There is support from Software and hardware vendors but most responsibility for delivery lies with the ICT department

  • A large amount of effort and cost is spent in activities that do not offer value to the business. 
  • You are required to be good at everything.
  • There is little capacity to scale
  • Operations will be brittle, and the business will experience varying service levels.
  • You must orchestrate the various vertical support contracts to deliver service.

Outsource Model

The ICT department owns issues closest to the business and outsources lower layers of the stack to one or more service providers

  • ICT is responsible for application delivery.
  • A variety of providers are responsible for different parts of the stack leading to unclear responsibilities.
  • ICT still owns the burden of complexity and technical debt despite having outsourced the lower level components.

IaaS or Private Cloud Model

The ICT department owns application delivery and some platform services, but the majority of the stack is operated by a single vendor.

  • An option for hosting venerable systems where no SaaS model is available.
  • Depending on the vendor chosen more or less of the Platform Services may be viable.
  • A good combination with SaaS and to use as a steppingstone.

SaaS Model

The ICT department owns delivery of the application to the business.  ICT also owns the problem of integration between components. The effort and risks of making services available is placed with those best able to deal with it.

  • You own the problem of using the application to achieve business outcomes.
  • The application vendor provides the software in its own datacenters and owns its operational burden.
  • There is an aligned self-interest between the SaaS provider and the customer given that an outage or service interruption affects many customers.

Its pretty clear that SaaS is the way to go. So the goal should be to move towards that over time. The role of the three main delivery models (collapsing outsourcing and IaaS together) looks like this…

Market Share Over Time

What is the role of the Datacenter?

After setting the scene for the current and future direction of ICT it’s possible to put the role of a datacenter in context.  They are critical parts of an ICT landscape, but their role is evolving.

The case for Datacenters

At the bottom of the Application Delivery Stack is the Datacenter.  Whether you operate on-premises or in public cloud there is always a Datacenter.  Should a business operate its own Datacenters?  Only in limited circumstances.  Generally, a business will not be as good at datacenter operations as a dedicated third-party datacenter provider.  Levels of security, availability, power are uneconomical to provide internally.  Pooling these costs and risks reduces the costs to users.

Beyond being mere “bit barns” for servers, storage and networking the modern datacenter provider can be best considered a real estate play.  In the same way that shopping centers aggregate demand from shoppers and sell that demand to shop owners, datacenters can be thought of in the same way.  They are often not just places to house servers but marketplaces for valuable services.  The larger the datacenter, the more services available there.  It becomes convenient to connect to these services if your operations are collocated nearby.  The business model in many datacenters focuses on this market aggregation capability.  Revenue from cross-connection in datacenters is sometimes the source of profit with racking/power charges merely cost recovery.

The case against Datacenters

The case against datacenters is more a case against the sort of services they offer.  In the Application Delivery Stack there are four delivery models presented.  The best way to deliver services to the business is to leverage SaaS offerings.  In this case the role of a datacenter is limited.  They are a critical part of the service delivery model for each SaaS provider.  More often, datacenters are critical to the public cloud provider upon which the SaaS offering is built.

So this is less a case against datacenters, more an argument that you should be in a position where they no longer matter to you directly.

A career with a flammable CV

Planned Obsolescence

A baked in part of the design of technology products and an unavoidable side-effect of a career in IT

In a discussion with a colleague recently we reflected on how our careers and our CVs race ahead while the invisible fuse line of obsolescence comes along from behind and renders cherished skillsets and competencies burn away.  We have intimate knowledge of technologies nobody cares about anymore.  We were deeply familiar with products from companies now confined to a fringe article on Wikipedia.  We have programming languages on our CVs we’ll never use again, in fact when they are mentioned in a meeting we resist the urge to admit any knowledge.  The bullet points of our CVs settle over time into a thing we just call “experience”.    The fact that we have to reinvent ourselves every 5 years is exhausting but also exhilarating.  In some areas of IT that cycle is down to 12 or 18 months (Scriptaculous and Prototype, really?  All the cool kids use React, jQuery and Bootstrap now).

Few industries suffer from this planned obsolescence like IT.  Other professions are made redundant by change.  Ours has the redundancy built right in.  Through the decades, we have several careers in one.

There are two ways we can deal with this reality and only one that offers a clear path forward.

Option 1: Build a Moat (bad)

We can hunker down with our CV and resist change.  This is comfortable for a while, we end up being that heroic guru that saves the day every time.  The march of progress continues though and while we can fight change, it eventually overwhelms us.  What made us special, essential even is all of a sudden not needed anymore.  The reaction to this to build a moat around our technology or skillset.  We white-ant suggestions of anything new and act to engineer a climate of fear of change.  It’s not that the technology we work on is wrong, flawed or not in use anymore.  its just that improvements, efficiencies and lower costs can no longer be ignored.  The cost and risk of change is eventually outweighed by the benefits that can be realised.  The moat strategy comes unstuck.  This is often coupled with an unfortunate correlation between the point when you believe you are indispensable and the day you get your pink slip.  You end up being the COBOL programmer you used to consider a dinosaur.

Option 2: Be Willing to Experiment (good)

Another way of relentless change is to make it part of our career.  We should focus on the problem at hand, not the tool we use to solve it.  When we become involved and invested in a particular technology it often becomes the focus and we forget why we use it in the first place.  Load balancers and highly available database services with big arrays of web servers in the middle are great but their purpose is to deliver a website to people so they can go about their business more effectively.  It doesn’t mean that the technology and toolset isn’t important, but it is inescapable that they are a means to an end and no more.  We need to be prepared to throw away what we know and embrace something new if it’s a better solution to our problem.  If we look at what we do this way, the business will inevitably respect us for being part of the solution, not a roadblock.  None of this means that you throw everything out when something new comes along.  There is still the rule of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  There’s a balance between keeping what works and being open to what’s new.

Observing this in the wild

Many of us in IT are consultants though.  We work in a wide range of organisations from large public companies and government agencies through to non-profits and medium sized businesses.  This broad experience across different industries with different cultures is challenging and fascinating but never dull.  What sticks out is the similarities.  We see Moat Builders and Experimenters everywhere.  In our practice we talk a lot about public cloud services in relation to traditional on-premises solutions.  This quickly flushes out the moat builders and the experimenters.  We look around meeting tables and pick who’s who based on the body language.  Crossed arms and leaning back are a good indicator.  But there are some who are open, that lean in and have open arms.  They engage with the conversation and want to learn.

In advocating for new technologies and practices it is part of our role to persuade people that this don’t represent a threat but an opportunity.  We should encourage people to try new things, to return to being out of their depths for a while in order to progress.  Ultimately the effort is well worth it.

How do we make Moat Builders into Experimenters

People’s livelihood, self respect and satisfaction comes from being useful, making a difference and feeling like they contribute to something.  There is a lot at stake so people need to feel comfortable and they need to be motivated.

  • Sell the change.  People need to buy in and for that to happen they need to be sold on the idea.  Explain to them why this new way of doing this is better than before.
  • Appeal to laziness.  Explain how it is easier than before to do the same thing.  Be careful though not to scare them into thinking that their job will be factored out.
  • Don’t call their baby ugly.  People’s skills and experience are hard won and their accomplishments should be respected.  Don’t belittle how its done now, explain how it could be better.
  • Keep going until they start convincing you.  What you’re looking for is people to start echoing back the value of what you’re telling them.  You want them to agree with you and be an advocate.

This has all happened before

Looking outside of IT we see many example of skills, professions and whole industries disappearing into history.  The industrial revolution changed the nature of work and mechanised manufacturing altered what it meant to be a craftsman.  At each point, people were freed from mundane, unfulfilling and often dangerous work.  Upheaval of this nature has consequences for individuals but society and civilisation moved on.  Whaling is no longer a sought after skill and neither is understanding X25 protocol communications.

Don’t be frightened of a changing CV, just be prepared to be up for the challenge of reinventing yourself over and over again.

Enabler in Chief

Its time for a re-think of ICT’s role in the business. We should embrace our role as enablers of great works, not the centre of the world.

I love what I do.  Lately I’ve been playing with IOT.  I know very little about electronics.  I can read the squiggles on a circuit diagram and I know what most of them mean but I don’t understand why they are arranged the way they are.  It’s like reading music, I know the notes but I can’t fathom the whole piece.  Learning these things is like unpacking a mystery and I find it immensely satisfying.  From a software perspective though I’m on less shaky ground.  But even in that realm I’ve had to revive old skills.  I have to be careful with memory again for instance.  Who’d have thought that?   The wide-eyed sensation I’m getting with this technology takes me back to 1980 when I first played with an Apple II.  The toys of my youth were blown away in that moment.  I was hooked.  Trips to the Angle Park Computing Center followed and I can proudly say that I have written code with punch cards.  Computing has been a huge part of my life for over 35 years.

I love technology but over time I realized that its really  a means to an end.  IT is or should be at the core of  every business regardless of what it does.  It’s almost never why the business exists in the first place though.  Supermarket chains for instance might have big IT teams but they’re all about the efficient marketing of bread, milk and nappies.  Banks, despite being giant information systems aren’t about IT.  Their purpose in society is to assist in the efficient allocation of capital.  This has a huge impacts on everyone’s lives.  Arguably, even software companies aren’t about IT.  The software they produce is only a tool used to solve problems in the real world.

Does this mean that a life-long passion for technology is somehow misguided?  Quite the contrary.  It’s empowering to know that IT is one of the only professions that has the potential to improve all the others.  We are merely the enabler of great works.  The trade off is that we have to let go of the expectation that our role will be understood and valued as we’d like.

I think technologists need to rethink their role with a new title:  Enabler in Chief.

How do we move from being technologists to enablers?

  • Walk a mile in their shoes. Challenge ourselves to always see things through the eyes of the business. It is our job to explain and justify our role. Often what we value will not be valued at all by those who pay for it. Explain and justify things from the perspective of the business. Shifting our perspective will improve dialog and promote respect.
  • Find a way to say yes.  The business will do it anyway.  It is better to make it easy to do things the right way rather than risk the business doing it the wrong way.  Be the enabler, not the blocker.  Our job is to help them achieve their goals.  The more we say yes, the more we will be valued.
  • The business isn’t the enemy.  I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had where “users” are vilified.  When did a simple word “user” become pejorative? Words matter.  All calls to service desks start with “System X is broken and I can’t do Y”.  X is not important.  Doing Y is what is important.  Empathise with people, we’re all on the same team.
  • Learn who we work for.  There is often a demarcation between the IT world and the business.  Take time to learn what the business does and why.  In a big, complex organization this can be fascinating.  When we start to see the wider context our true value emerges.  What we see will percolate.  Suggestions for improvement will emerge and will be implemented.
  • The technology bit is usually the easiest.  Lasting, meaningful change happens gradually and painstakingly.  Respect this and understand that it is often why initiatives either fail or never get off the ground.  Usually the technology component of a solution is the easiest bit.

We should keep all of this in perspective though.  Keep true to the passion that inspired our choice of profession but respect that it is real world problems that pay for it all.