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Data center projects get lost in translation

The reasons to virtualize 80% of servers and create fault-tolerant clusters are obvious -- right? When you're explaining the project to the CFO, it's going to take more than IT metrics to make your case.

Some IT pros enjoy discussions on new server features or how raising the chilled water temperature can cut 0.01 points off of the company's PUE, but your corporate leaders probably aren't among them.

The people who obsess over power usage effectiveness (PUE) and server utilization rates also prevent wasted budgets and support agile business moves. They underpin success, but that isn't enough.

"You have to speak the CFO's language," said Marconi Bomfim, vice president of systems architecture for a U.S. financial management company. "It gives [admins] the chance to show them all the wonderful things that IT is doing to support the business."

There's a solid business value that drives new data center projects, but IT gets stuck in a features/function mind-set. To communicate, translate infrastructure and operations metrics into business values, said Robert Naegle, research director at Gartner Inc., during a presentation at the recent Gartner IT Infrastructure & Operations Management Summit in Florida.

Metrics must align with what's important to the business. For example, 1% downtime means less than four days of downtime in a year. That's great, unless those four days affect a revenue-generating application, Naegle said. In that case, the C-suite executives only think that the data center is costing money and failing the business.

How to translate data center initiatives

To discuss IT projects with business partners, don't get lost in the details, and don't discuss technologies where you need to significantly educate the other parties.

I'm definitely going to use 'translation' techniques to filter IT metrics for the executives to explain what we're doing.
Marconi BomfimVP of systems architecture for a U.S. financial management company

Use three terms: revenue impact, risk mitigation and cost reduction.

Generally, transactional systems for customer support or e-commerce are revenue drivers. Projects around disaster recovery, service-level agreements, asset management and productivity fall into the cost reduction category. There is some overlap between cost reduction projects and risk mitigation projects, such as data protection, downtime prevention and audit investments.

Next, explain whether ongoing efforts are improving, failing or staying the same. Use aggregated scales of information to avoid digging into the hardware, software and other data center details that individually affect this upstream activity.

"I'm definitely going to use 'translation' techniques to filter IT metrics for the executives to explain what we're doing," Bomfin said. "Everyone is doing more with less -- they don't have the time to learn your language."

But communication is a two-way street. If businesses understand that servers and scripts are the underlying support structure for all customer-facing and internal applications and services, it is only natural for these executives to learn how IT works and make intelligent decisions around it.

"A lot of CFOs [have] to become much more technology-focused with the cloud movement," said James Stanger, senior director of product management at trade association CompTIA Inc., based in Downers Grove, Illinois.

The new CompTIA Strata IT Fundamentals certification focuses on the entire horizon of how the IT industry works -- what virtualization is and why encryption is important, Stanger said, for business executives to contextualize IT changes.

Eliminate the notion of the data center as a cost center, and think of it instead as a profit center, said Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D., research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University.

"If you structure IT correctly, it cuts costs and lets you innovate and change faster," Koomey added.

He suggests developing metrics that allow executives to understand how IT costs affect business outcomes. With a set of key performance indicators that everyone agrees on, you can bridge the less tangible cultural divide between IT and business partners.

"EBay developed metrics so the business understood their cost per server, cost per transaction, for example," Koomey said. "The project exposed how some in management didn't understand IT, which was frustrating at the time but led to more efficient operations."

EBay went from having 90 server options to just two, as well as an internal cloud that could host modest projects within minutes. That simplification translated into drastically shorter provisioning times, which gave the company a competitive advantage, Koomey said.

Data center managers are smart, but they can't fix fundamental problems such as how budgets are structured, Koomey added, which is why he teaches "Data Center Essentials for Executives" with Ann Arbor, Michigan-based training institute HeatSpring and the Datacenter Dynamics events company. The course focuses on all of IT and how to design productivity and cost measurements that matter, then drive these metrics down to the project level so everyone is in sync.

Arbitrary metrics waste money, Koomey added. A CEO cannot come in and ask for lower PUE without considering the broader implications, which could actually raise ongoing costs. The goal should be lowest power consumption per IT transaction, for example, not hitting the lowest PUE at all costs. Don't just measure -- define the right things to measure for your business, he said.

A simple communication change that the experts each agree on: Get everyone important to the data center into the same room when discussing a major project. Just because you aren't fluent yet doesn't mean you can't begin communicating.

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Have you experienced communication challenges with business leaders?
This has got to apply to all organizations to some extent. It's certainly not an issue exclusive to data centers. I work on internal software product development, and fighting for good practices is a constant battle, because it appears to the executives to be more time consuming. As a result, we frequently find ourselves fighting fires because we are not given the budget to spend time improving applications and infrastructure. It is definitely a difficult situation to be in.