Fighting the IT War on Two Fronts - Part 1

John Richardson

IT executives are fighting a war on two fronts, with increased technological complexity and users demanding more for less. At the same time, technology is supposed to simplify your data center environment. Instead, it adds complexity to the processes and overall management of your assets. Though we've been promised simplification for years, the truth is that there are too many forces in place to ever make good on that promise.

Business users are more dependent on IT than ever, yet their understanding of IT reality hasn't grown as much in sophistication. This makes them more demanding than ever to work with-and understandably so. While they have real questions about what they are getting and why it costs what it does, they have very little concept of the complexity that continues to grow in the data center.

In upcoming posts, we'll look at a few relevant topics that will help IT balance the growing demands they are facing from both technology and their end users. In this post, we're going to examine one technology trend that promises simplification and delivers complexity, with a look at how we can take advantage of the benefits and manage the challenges.

Does Consolidation Equal Simplification?

Economic realities have driven a wave of consolidation projects to achieve better asset leverage and lower costs. Storage area networks (SAN) and server virtualization are two examples of consolidation technologies that are achieving acceptance as ways to achieve higher ROI in the data center.

Manufacturers who sell these technologies claim 'simplified operations,' 'lower total cost of ownership' or 'set and forget.' But are we really getting a simpler operation?

A Closer Look

SANs came about as a way to consolidate all the previous server-attached storage. Not only do SANs increase storage utilization, they make data protection easier and they allow IT shops to deliver tiers of storage service to their user community. So far, so good.

Yet managing centralized storage has proven to be challenging. In the course of my work, I get to ask many storage administrators how much raw storage they have, and it's surprising how often the answer comes back, 'I don't know.' These are very intelligent people-the truth is, many use the manufacturers' storage tools, which lack even basic information. And most don't come close to providing the business detail that senior management and users want.

Another benefit in a shared storage environment is that consumption takes on a different spin: instead of making do with whatever is attached to your server, you now have virtually unlimited resources to work with. But you also have to request what you need. Given the pain of the request process and the far greater pain of running out of storage, users tend to ask for a little (maybe a lot) more than what they really need. And do they ever give it back?

 The result is that in storage consolidation, we often give up simplicity for high utilization. The tools we use to provision storage are challenging, the storage admin skill set is hard to find (and sometimes keep) and the politics of storage usage can create a new kind of waste-over-allocated storage-to replace the waste of unconsolidated hard drives.

Now, what about server virtualization? One of the largest waves in IT infrastructure was driven by the thousands of standalone servers that were averaging less than 20 percent utilization. CFOs signed off on virtualization projects confident of good ROI even if they only achieved half of the promise. The ease of firing up VMware and the high level of compatibility created a giddy atmosphere for consolidators.

But did they count on the side effects? Managing a single server that is running a single application and running at less than 20 percent of its capacity isn't difficult. In fact, running a lot of servers like that isn't that difficult. But, virtualize all those servers on a single host, and now we have some added complexity we didn't have before. Do we back up from vCenter or from the individual hosts? How do we handle legacy functions that count on physical devices? How do we tell how much storage is allocated to each virtual host?

Add to the management complexity the fact that we're shooting for 60-80 percent CPU utilization on the physical servers, and suddenly performance management becomes a much more serious issue. With multiple eggs in a single basket (server), our margin for error has been reduced, and the implication of a failure is multiplied.

So while there are clear benefits to consolidation-the need to manage fewer physical assets, stronger data protection, and cost reduction, to name a few - it is also clear that consolidation doesn't mean simplification. Though one could consider that centralizing resources is simplifying, you actually end up with more management challenges due to the increased technical requirement for the new environment with a far narrower margin for error.

IT executives facing these challenges need to consider how they will handle the added complexity in their new environments.  If your current team has thorough knowledge of the new technologies in place and the time to handle day-to-day operations, you're in great shape.  But if your team doesn't have the right skill set, then finding and retaining those skills can be an expensive proposition.  IT executives may want to examine external service providers with expertise identifying and managing complexities across a wide range of environments.  A solid managed services provider can offer a more holistic approach for mitigating issues and ensure your new environment continues to improve efficiency and reduce costs without adding to the expense and stress of your existing in-house team.  Whichever option you choose, do not underestimate the need for skilled operations management for your newly consolidated environment.

As we continue to examine the two-front war in IT, my next post will explore the benefits and challenges of creating a Service Catalogue.

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