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Making time for IT planning: Advisory Board Q&A

Organizations that don't invest in IT planning may lose efficiency and business advantages in the long run.

IT staff should do more than just keep the shop open. IT must plan, test and implement technologies and tools that can make a business more agile, more cost effective, and ultimately more competitive. But for too many companies, the IT department is seen as little more than an expense – a cost of doing business. The budget pressures of recent years have slashed IT staffing and resources to the point where IT staff is doing little more than fighting the daily fires of email alerts, wailing pagers and angry phone calls from impaired users. This has made productive involvement in business strategy virtually impossible. Still, formulating and implementing a sound and business-savvy IT planning strategy remains a crucial goal for IT departments.

So how do you make time for strategy? Are you doing enough strategic IT planning for your data center, and what are the consequences when strategic planning is inadequate, or even absent? How can an IT staff stop this “break-and-fix” mentality and give an adequate amount of attention to bigger-picture strategic planning? What strategic efforts and technologies should an IT staff consider for their data center? We turned to the SearchDataCenter.com Advisory Board for answers to the most pressing IT planning and strategy questions.

Matt Stansberry, director of content and publications, Uptime Institute
Do data center managers make enough time for strategic planning? The short answer is no, and data from SearchDataCenter.com's 2010 salary survey proved this. Budget cuts reduced staffing levels and operations teams were asked to do more work with less resources. So many managers are locked into the day-to-day firefighting; they never get out of the reactionary mode to plan ahead.

The consequences can be dire. I wouldn't want to be the manager who has to go to the executive team to explain why a data center ran out of capacity sooner than expected. But even if you're not at risk of running out of capacity -- just the day-to-day waste that comes from not aligning data center and business needs can really eat at your company's bottom line.

Is your organization at risk of running out of data center capacity? Are you considering moving compute loads to the cloud, increasing virtualization investments, evaluating colocation options or planning a new data center? Are you responsible to deliver this message and formulate a strategic plan? These aren't the kinds of projects you can handle if you don't make time for formal strategic planning across all of the silos in the organization, from server and storage management to the facilities team.

Michael Coté, analyst, RedMonk
For the most part, I'd say that the words "strategic" and "IT" are rarely seen together. IT is seen as a rude utility by most businesses and therefore, is not given the time and money to focus on longer-term strategic planning. Instead, [the IT department] has to keep things up and running, respond to silly requests about email attachment size and focus on driving costs down. [Good businesses] look at IT as source for business differentiations. How can IT be used to compete in the marketplace, and not just save more money on the CFO's spreadsheet? Once the business starts asking IT to the table, IT can start [strategic] planning.

Without adequate strategic planning and business involvement, you might pay less for moderately good IT: email, archiving, managing all the desktops and servers, and even the IT services you need to interact with consumers and other businesses. But the quality [of services] will be low, and the company won't be able to use IT as a tool to drive new business and retain existing customers. Look at [an example] like Starbuck's pay-with-your-iPhone program. I have no idea what the background of that is, but it's definitely IT. If customers using that mobile app frequent the store more often, order more per transaction, and/or if the payment app drives down fraud at locations, it'll make for a good example of using IT strategically instead of just asking them to focus on uptime.

We've yet to universally solve the problem of excessive "firefighting" in IT – taking care of issues that pop up suddenly over long-term problems. In ITIL, there's a great separation between "incidents" and "problems." Incidents are short-term symptoms that tend to consume your time, versus long-term "sickness," which are the problems causing those symptoms. The best way to fix this problem has little to do with technology and more to do with management -- assigning part of your staff to work on incidents and another part to work on problems. Rotating staff through those two roles seems an effective way to not only prevent burn-out, but to actually train people about the different roles in IT so that they can get the big picture. Setting up the schedule and work assignments to make this possible is the manager's responsibility, and if a team can't effectively do both, management is doing something wrong.

In order, the most compelling technologies for the data center are virtualization, cloud-based technologies and practices, and mobile technologies. If you're not well on your way to virtualizing, you're leaving both money and strategic benefits on the table. With that extra time and money, the IT department could start focusing on new ways to apply IT to help the organization generate money, not just save it. For most people, cloud is a continuation of that technology transformation and the desired benefits.

Mobile brings IT planning back into the applications business. IT needs to start looking at mobile as the next desktop. Consider the following scenario: assume that desktops and laptops will go away (except for workstations needed for video editing, engineering and other high-performance tasks) and will be replaced by employee-owned mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets and even Internet-enabled TVs. Think about what IT needs to provide, how much and how long will it take, and how can you predict possible benefits in savings and revenue. Then draw up plans that can be executed upon request.

Robert Rosen, CIO, mainframe user group leader
There is probably not enough strategic planning in today's data center. With downsizing, increasing mandates, and so on, IT shops are running as fast as they can just to keep their heads above water. The consequences are that you will never get out of that mode. Worse, the company will call in some outside consultants who don't know your company to come up with a plan that is guaranteed to be less than optimal.

IT shops must move everyday time-consuming operations to contractors so internal staff that know the company can research and develop long-range plans. Although there are many interesting technologies available, the most important strategic effort is for IT staff to identify and incorporate the latest relevant technologies in a way that will improve the business value of IT. The key term here is “business value.”

Bill Kleyman, director of technology, World Wide Fittings Inc.
Planning within an IT environment is one of the most important jobs that can be performed. Good IT planning lets engineers reduce costs, increase the likelihood of a successful project and help foresee road bumps in the future. Planning for a deployment or a piece of technology takes time and dedication. Although data center planning exists in full swing, the problem is that the planning phase of a project is sometimes underdone or not fully thought out. Nothing is ever set in stone and the IT world fluctuates daily. So, IT planning will still have its limitations, but knowing how to plan and what to plan for can reduce headaches for managers and engineers alike.

When planning is skipped, overlooked or just sped through, the consequences for a company can be pretty drastic. Imagine rolling out a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for a medium-sized environment. Some planning is done for the project, but it’s certainly not as thorough as it should have been. The project is five months in, 75% of the way through and over 250,000 dollars have been spent on it, when a bombshell drops on the IT manager's lap indicating that a major system component is not compatible with the new ERP system. To make it compatible, the company would either have to scratch the entire project and start over or put in another four months and an additional 100,000 dollars just to make it work. The issue, as seen in hindsight, is a simple one and could have been easily caught had the planning phase been done properly.

Management is trained to think long-term – at least some of us certainly think that way. On the other hand, a lot of junior or mid-level IT engineers are more focused on the problems at hand. They live in the "now." IT engineers need to think long-term right alongside their managers. Instead of just fixing the problem, administrators need to ask, ‘Why did this problem happen, and what can I fix now so that it won't happen later?’

When engineers take responsibility for a given task or project, they become owners of that technology. For example, a mid-level IT engineer has been given the direct responsibility to manage a company's daily backup. Their job is to reduce the number of errors to ensure a good backup. There are two ways to train the person. The first would be to simply show them the ropes and allow them to fix issues as they come along. The other method is to make them understand the importance of their role and let them take ownership of that element in the data center. Now the engineer no longer wants to simply fix the problem, they want to make sure that same issue doesn't happen again. By changing the thought pattern of the people who work on these problems daily, managers can substantially reduce the amount of simple break-fix problems.

New server and data center technologies are leaping forward. Some of the most interesting and effective technologies involve distributed, wide area network (WAN) computing – the cloud. For example, creating a disaster recovery site is now easier with the use of a cloud. A data center can rent dormant virtual machines at a colocation provider and only pay for them when they are in use, or host secondary emergency operations completely from a cloud-based environment. I'm still hesitant about fully investing in primary solutions based on cloud technology, but it's something we are going to be looking at in the near future as a supplemental tool. Replicating over the WAN is becoming easier and much faster, and security over the cloud is [improving] as well.

Bill Bradford, Unix/Solaris expert and freelancer
In the past few years, a lot of companies have had the "do more with what we've already got" mindset due to the economy and shrinking or frozen budgets. Now that the economy is slowly picking back up, IT groups have to start planning for the next few years while remaining cautious about spending – we're not out of the woods yet.

There's a very fine line between making the most of what we have, and having adequate headroom for expansion and growth when needed. Nobody wants to get caught behind the demand curve, but companies are hesitant about pouring too much money into IT because of the slowly recovering economy.

Having supportive management helps in this regard. Your IT staff should not have to beg for needed hardware or software. If they want something small, simple or cheap that helps them do their job more efficiently, give it to them! Upper management should avoid the tendency to haggle over small things.

The most important technology that companies should be looking into right now is virtualization and server consolidation. Of course, it's not a magic solution and won't solve every problem, but it just might save some money and make server management a bit easier, leaving room for more ambitious efforts down the road in terms of budget and time.

Strategy is good for business
IT provides its greatest value to a business through strategic planning. IT planning can lower costs, improve operations and make a company more competitive. The problem is that too many IT departments face inadequate funding and personnel. They're bogged down in a “break-and-fix” quagmire that may keep the shop open, but just barely. Break this short-sighted cycle and get back to the meaningful planning that businesses really benefit from over the longer term.

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