How to shop wisely for the IT department of the future

What the experts say

If your IT department is inefficient it is entirely possible that the responsibility does not properly belong with the nerds who run it. It is human nature to cast about for blame, but chances are the problem of IT cost overruns and project delays lies with the business.

An inability to reach the promised "agile" nirvana so frequently mooted by analysts in business magazines is not the fault of the technology but of the people and processes that restrain it.

Seeking clarity on why deployments rarely live up to the hype, The Register has polled a diverse group of systems administrators to get their take.

Deeper understanding

We start with one of The Register's own sysadmin bloggers, Stuart Burns. His diverse experience ranges from small web-based ventures to financial sector IT through to coalface work at an enterprise-focused cloud service provider (CSP).

For Burns, one thing stands out as a driver of inefficiency: companies rarely understand what it is they are purchasing.

Someone sees buzzwords discussed in a magazine and sets out to purchase those buzzwords. Burns sees waste and overspending as a bigger issue than ever as technology has become more agile and its capabilities more granular.

Burns explains what he sees happening to companies purchasing today's hot new thing, cloud computing.

”Business needs to understand how the cloud works properly, how it is not just quick and efficient, it is elastic, it contracts as requires,” he says.

“I see companies wasting thousands of CPUs and terabytes of RAM through over-provisioning."

He also notes resource management issues in cloud computing. "Demand for dedicated resources is a problem too. Companies also need to understand that computing is no longer per operating company; it is shared across multiple companies’” he says.

“They benefit because they can use on-demand capability to spin up a project very quickly. Unfortunately, stuff just sits there doing nothing because it's provisioned but never drawn down when it's no longer required."

“They don't understand that the more you add the worse things get"

On the more technical side, Burns sees issues with basic understandings of how workloads can be optimised. "Educating people about virtual CPUs is an uphill battle. They don't understand that the more you add the worse things get."

Regardless of whether your cloud is public, private or hybrid, Burns thinks one of the biggest benefits of dynamic infrastructure is that it can serve as a driver for change.

"With cloud capability you don't tend to get machines that are legacy. The people who look after cloud capabilities tend to stick with newer stuff, so you get really old hardware left behind,” he notes.

To steal a business term often used in anger, Burns's comments boil down the need for businesses to "right-size" their resources and understand what they require.

For nearly every area of the business you will find a dozen enterprise resource planning vendors and billions of dollars in annual sales. But IT planning is a different beast.

Dazed and confused

The sheer quantity of interdependent and interacting variables borders on the incomprehensible. I have long maintained that it is impossible for any one human being to truly understand all elements underpinning, say, VMware's offerings down to first principles.

Attempting to understand the whole of modern IT down to first principles would probably lead to downright madness.

One day, business managers might be able to fire up a predictive analytics application, look at their infrastructure and just know what needs to be done to make things more efficient.

Unfortunately, that day is years off. You still need a decent grounding in the technology to make reasoned decisions, even with predictive analytics. Without them, your average business manager doesn't stand a chance.

Joined-up planning

Sysadmin Jon Harris; agrees. His experience is in big IT: government, higher education and enterprise. He thinks "companies need to start forecasting" to achieve IT efficiency.

Harris points to funding IT on a per-project basis as an issue. Modern IT isn't siloed, with servers and software for one project or department physically separate from another’s. IT funding needs to be planned in a strategic and joined-up fashion across the organisation.

"Companies need to look at overall large projects and how they want to start funding. They need to say 'I want to bite off this particular part of infrastructure and fund that piece’. They have to start being proactive about how they want to invest in things,” he says.

Harris believes cultural change within a company is ultimately the way to eliminate inefficiency.

"If the organisation isn't ready to make that cultural shift, then it just isn't going to happen. Over and over we have run into roadblocks, not with what the technology could do but with an unwillingness to change,” he says.

"I think it's a problem if you're isolated. I don't say you have to be a specialist in everything, but it's smarter for a company to converge IT groups.

“You might be a specialist in different areas, but these areas need to talk. They need to communicate like normal human beings. Your businesses need to be as agile as the processes you are trying to build out."

Harris argues that there is still a need for the IT generalist. "It is the difference between an IT architect and a technician,” he says.

“Technicians knows their specific area, whereas architects have that holistic view of how the pieces interact. The architects need to be running the teams."

As an IT generalist, I naturally agree with the idea that the generalists should be in charge. But bias aside, I see this as a major hurdle. The IT generalist is a dying breed. We are pushed from the start to hyper-specialise if we want to make the big bucks.

IT certification bingo becomes critical if you want to climb the greasy pole to the top, but this often leads to vendor-specific blinders and no time to learn the soft skills and business elements required to take on a truly strategic role.

Next page: A head for business

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