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Business-IT alignment drives data center investments

What do virtualization, scalability and automation have to do with a perfect cup of coffee or how many candidates ace the LSATs?

Companies increasingly rely on technology and can't succeed without business-IT alignment.

With that, data center pros are investing in ways to scale, automate rote tasks and innovate services to help the company succeed.

"We've moved away from keeping-the-lights-on to business analysis IT roles," said David Fahr, director of technology at the Community Coffee Company, which has added IT roles that straddle technology and business, such as technology business analysts.

Community Coffee started in Baton Rouge, La. and currently does business in 20 states across the southeastern U.S. Over the last 10 years, it has seen growth in both processes and IT complexity, Fahr said.

The company's data center investments center around core technologies that scale up for backend requirements, taking advantage of a redundant, highly available colocation site and virtualization, rather than maintaining multiple versions and options for things like email and ERP.

"This lets us spend more time on business-centric initiatives," Fahr said.

LSAC's tech upgrades support growth

The Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which offers admissions support services to law schools and candidates, also underwent data center upgrades for a better customer experience. LSAC's IT shop needed a way to improve reaction time to application issues and estimate capacity needs.

LSAC went from one-to-one server and application ratios to virtualization for more scalable capacity over the past three years. It also implemented performance monitoring and capacity planning in 2006.

As business grew to include more than 200 member schools globally, LSAC could not simply react to application problems, but instead needed to understand cycles of activity and capacity demand, as well as what availability means to application users.

"With multiple tiers, it was hard to track down [an] issue -- there was a lot of scrambling" to review logs on individual servers, said Christopher Knight, LSAC's team leader of network infrastructure services.

With installation of performance monitoring tools from TeamQuest Corp., LSAC could see that a main application was slow because servers were close to 100% CPU use and low on memory, for example. The team also uses VMware vRealize to manage the virtualization ecosystem, SolarWinds to monitor networking, and server management tools including Microsoft System Center Operations Manager.

The TeamQuest toolset also informed long-term capacity and architecture decisions.

LSAC modeled the Oracle database workloads for two highly critical apps over the course of several years, said Jerry Goldman, director of technical services at the organization.

As the company outgrew and depreciated its HP server deployment for value, functionality, and volume, Goldman's team used TeamQuest to benchmark new servers and track actual and projected business volumes before investing in equipment updates. This information helped guide a mainframe deployment with greater capacity, growth and performance.

Now that the IT shop aligned its high-performance hardware and application structure with user demand, Goldman said, it uses "a fraction of that capacity" during the height of the law school registration period. The organization is rolling out new applications.

LSAC sets metrics for service availability, change management, and problem management, governed by ITIL practices.

"We try to cover everything that's measurable within the data center," Knight said. "Business service level is the next challenge."

While LSAC maintains the vast majority of its IT infrastructure in-house at a Newtown, Pa. data center, it may extend into the cloud. The organization is assessing software-defined networking to increase flexibility and create cloud-readiness.

"The goal is to get away from one server/one plug," Knight said, just as virtualization took them away from one server/one application several years ago.

"We want to be able to move things around without having services go down," he added.

Coffee company gets a colo pick-me-up

Community Coffee moved to colocation in 2012 and 2013 to minimize interruption to business processes, and refresh its data center hardware and the network backbone without investing in major power and cooling upgrades. The company installed production and disaster recovery at Venyu Solutions, a colocation and cloud hosting provider with its flagship site in Baton Rouge.

The data center investments were necessary to keep up with the pace of business today; it's a "deal killer" for corporate email and other core systems to go down due to events like hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, Fahr said.

Community Coffee's in-house data center wasn't resilient enough to maintain this higher level of uptime that the company needed as it grew. The Venyu Baton Rouge deployment includes fully redundant power and cooling with a flood-safe location.

Like LSAC, Community Coffee's IT team pursued virtualization, shrinking the server footprint even while expanding services. Fahr is looking ahead to business-centric IT projects, such as convergence across all of Community Coffee's businesses and distribution channels.

The company evaluated cloud-based storage area network and other services in its last hardware refresh when moving to colocation, and will give the idea a fresh look in the future as an option to improve IT-business alignment.

Meredith Courtemanche is the site editor for SearchDataCenter. Follow @DataCenterTT for news and tips on data center IT and facilities.

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Where are you making data center investments this year? Facility, hardware, management tools or a mix?
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I agree, it's increasingly important for companies to see the true potential in their IT departments and realize that they are no longer just there for "keeping the lights on". At my organization, the IT department provides immense business value, but the company hasn't yet made the transition to seeing itself as a technology company. 
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