Cloud Transition Challenges: Getting a Grip on the IT Future

February 15, 2012 1 Comment »
Cloud Transition Challenges: Getting a Grip on the IT Future

Every day at least 50 whitepapers, 10 ads and untold emails proclaim that moving to the cloud will solve all your IT problems. Once everything is virtualized, you’ll have no physical equipment to worry about, and the cloud will do everything and manage itself! Of course, this is not exactly the case. What’s worse is even though you know better, there’s a good chance your boss or the hungry-for-IT-as-an-infrastructure crowd in your organization thinks these things are really true, and the impatient foot-stomping sounds of “is it done yet?” are reverberating through the halls by day and in your head by night.

The promise of the cloud certainly offers many potential advantages. It can provide greater resource efficiency, power savings, real estate benefits and most of all it can save a tremendous amount of money. If the IT infrastructure in an organization is not also managed through the methodical application of best service management practices, however, migration to the cloud will both increase IT overhead as well as headaches.

What’s Real Now

Information technology is no longer limited to discrete devices, nor is its use limited to highly trained people. Instead it’s found throughout the business, on the factory floor, in vehicles and in pockets. Where the technology itself was once the centerpiece, now creation and business information management dominates. Information permeates virtually every business process. Even procurements and ordering janitorial supplies are inventoried and monitored by some database. The ivory tower has been depopulated and IT has been scattered throughout the business. Ask yourself:

  • Where is the data and information generated in your business?
  • Who’s collecting the data?
  • How is it being used?
  • Who manages and maintains the equipment?
  • Does IT even have direct responsibility over all assets with embedded IT technology?
  • What about other company commons such as offices, cubicle assignments, tools, vehicles and so on?

If the IT help desk is responsible for assigning, provisioning and maintaining the IT equipment given to an employee, wouldn’t it make sense to integrate the assignment of non-IT assets through the same set of processes? That’s probably the topic of another story, but think about it.

It’s these modern realities of computerized business management that dramatically increases the complexity of and demands on an IT service management organization. Although adding new tools to a company’s IT toolbox is usually a good thing, it also adds more layers of complexity that aren’t generally being recognized. This article should get you thinking about some of these new complexities while also reinforcing the perspective of IT as a service, not just a conglomeration of technologies. It will also look at the absolute need for strategically integrating IT with other essential business functions.

Computing Device Explosion

Recall, if you can, the beginning of business computer use. In those days, a company may have had just one computer, and it was guaranteed that only a few people actually knew how to use it. Fast-forward to 2012 and every employee in an organization has a computer. Not only do most employees have a personal desktop computer, many likely also have a laptop, smartphone and tablet.

In early 2011, Forrester Research estimated that 24.1 million tablets would be sold in the United States in 2011. This is more than double the number sold the year before. Forrester also estimated that the number would jump to 44 million by 2015.

Forrester IT infographic

Forrester Research’s U.S. consumer tablet forcast

Although most tablets are used for personal activities such as web surfing, reading books or watching videos, increasing evidence suggests tablets are infiltrating the business world. According to Deloitte, businesses purchased 25 percent of the tablets sold in 2011.

These numbers are staggering, particularly since the tablet craze is still very new. Apple’s iPad was launched just two years ago.

Before the iPad was the iPhone, which triggered a smartphone explosion. A Microsoft Tag report claims that of the 4 billion mobile phones used worldwide, 1.07 billion are smartphones. This number is growing, especially in developed nations. The rise of smartphones and tablets also underscores another element that adds to IT management complexity. This element is the blurring of lines between the personal and professional. Many people own their own smartphones or tablets, yet they certainly expect to connect to the company network for work.

With the rise in knowledge work, performing it from a central location is decreasingly common. People can work from everywhere. Go to any Starbucks or Peet’s coffee shop for ample proof. Many people power up their company laptops and log on to their network from home or elsewhere to correspond and to work on documents.

Information technology may also be found embedded in vehicle fleets, industrial equipment, office phones and more. These are all company assets and typically require frequent configuration, monitoring and management throughout their life span. Managing and provisioning services for such an array of devices is essential to supporting any business. Doing so in an ad hoc, “whatever you desire” manner is frankly a recipe for disaster, heartache and, likely, unemployment. The only sustainable solution is applying best IT service management practices—such as those document through the ITIL service library—and to implement them using a flexible and affordable tool set based on ITIL.

It’s All About the Service

In the midst of this ever-expanding array of technology, it’s important to note that technology is not the star of the show anymore. The services provided through technology’s use are all that matters. IT provides and enables the services that ultimately allow a business to be successful. Businesses must provide their employees with the equipment they need in a short period of time. More importantly, they want to know that employees can reliably communicate and calculate.

The technology embedded in laptops and email is merely a means to an end. In the case of the laptop, one end is creating documents. The most essential end with email is communicating with others quickly and easily. IT departments need to understand that the ultimate purpose of the resources they provide is integrating their work within the larger business framework. The business client doesn’t care how the services are provided as long as results are achieved and are sustainable with repeatable processes.

There must be documented processes that yield outputs that are satisfactory to the business. For example, an employee who is working from home may be accessing a virtual machine, but he still needs a laptop or other device to do so. These devices need to be managed, and there must be a central repository of information so that the use of company assets is being tracked. One way to track assets is through a configuration management database (CMDB) that allows IT to see what business assets are being used and their relationships to each other.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but think about all of the different types of devices that can be used. Multiply that across hundreds or thousands of people working in a large organization and you will see the value in having a proven system to track all the assets and resources. An added component of many CMDBs is auto discovery, a tool that finds IT or other resources on a network and automatically adds them to the asset database.

Applying IT Insights

Once you grasp the available IT resources, the business must know how to effectively use them. This includes documenting any problems that arise and troubleshooting them in a rapid, systematic way. Such a methodical strategy goes beyond any ad hoc approach that may have sufficed when systems were less complex. You could call on IT to come in and fix your computer, and that would solve an immediate problem and allow you to return to work. But if the problem wasn’t documented, the same one could arise later and no one would know how to fix it. This is why IT service management (ITSM) has incident and problem management.

“Incidents” are smaller troubles that point to bigger problems—for example, if users can’t log into their email accounts because the active directory is not functioning properly. The inability to log into an email account is the incident, and the nonfunctioning active directory is the problem. The first is the symptom and the second is the root cause. Only by creating systematic records of problems as they arise can you effectively troubleshoot in ways that allow you to use what you’ve learned. Once incidents and problems have been identified and resolved, IT can create knowledge articles that cover all of the solutions. Knowledge management takes what has been learned and converts it into a body of information that can be used in the future when similar issues arise. It also takes control out of the hands of a limited number of IT experts and places it into the hands of regular employees who can read the articles and solve their own problems, which is a very good thing for several obvious reasons.

Often, major changes to a company’s software infrastructure are needed. Change management ensures that these changes are carried out with minimal disruption to end users. A series of changes is known as a release, and these too must be managed and documented so that the desired outcome can be reached in a minimum number of steps. If something should go wrong, it’s easy to go back to the written record and see what happened. The change and release management processes also provide complete clarity on who exactly is managing the changes and releases so that there are no overlapping efforts and so that people understand who is ultimately accountable for the modifications at individual stages of the process.

Future Insight

In addition to managing existing resources, problems that arise and required changes, an IT department must also have a clear process for clients to request services. These services may include asking for a laptop or other device. A service portfolio is a list of all of the services that an IT department offers. A redacted portfolio, or service catalog, is available for each individual user. Some users will not have access to certain IT services owing to their level within the company. For example, an employee may not have permission to order a company cell phone. Employees should be able to see which services they are entitled to and then request them through another process called fulfillment or request management.

At the highest level of a company are service-level agreements between an IT service provider and the customer. These agreements lay out detailed expectations for the provision of IT services. Not only are expectations clear, but there is also a way to track whether or not they are being met. For example, perhaps one of the agreements consists of a ceiling on the amount of time that IT should take to resolve a specific issue. A mechanism will be in place to see how long the IT provider is taking on these tasks, and both the provider and the customer will be alerted if it takes more than the allotted time.

Conclusion

It’s an exciting time for IT management. There have never been so many ways of providing services to customers in amazingly cost-effective ways. The cloud opens up many new opportunities, but it will ultimately disappoint everyone if no effective mechanisms are in place to managing it. ITSM and ITIL both provide a recognized framework for overseeing IT processes and outputs. Although it may be easy to get bogged down in the terminology, it is important to remember the end goal: increased productivity at the lowest costs possible. Investing in a well-integrated system will allow companies to realize financial benefits because they truly understand IT investments and exactly how those resources are being managed. Knowledge is always the key to making better decisions and to using financial resources wisely.

About the Author

ITDave Saunders is VP Engineering and Product Development at San Jose, California–based Bluehawk Networks. He can be reached at dsaunders@bluehawknetworks.com.

Photo courtesy of Dreamcious

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