The Changing Role of IT Professionals

Information Technology is a great field. With technology advancing at the speed of sound, there is never a period when IT becomes boring, or hits an intellectual wall. New devices, new software, more network bandwidth, and new opportunities to make all this technology do great things for our professional and private lives.

image  Or, it becomes a frightening professional and intellectual cyclone which threatens to make our jobs obsolete, or diluted due to business units accessing IT resources via a web page and credit card, bypassing the IT department entirely.

One of the biggest challenges IT managers have traditionally encountered is the need for providing both process, as well as utility to end users and supported departments or divisions within the organization. It is easy to get tied down in a virtual mountain of spreadsheets, trouble tickets, and unhappy users while innovation races past.

The Role of IT in Future Organizations

In reality, the technology component of IT is the easy part. If, for example, I decide that it is cost-effective to transition the entire organization to a Software as a Service (SaaS) application such as MS 365, it is a pretty easy business case to bring to management.

But more questions arise, such as does MS 365 give business users within the organization sufficient utility, and creative tools, to help solve business challenges and opportunities, or is it simply a new and cool application (in the opinion of the IT guys…) that IT guys find interesting?

Bridging the gap between old IT and the new world does not have to be too daunting. The first step is simply understanding and accepting the fact internal data center are going away in favor of virtualized cloud-enabled infrastructure. In the long term Software as a Service and Platform as a Service-enabled information, communication, and service utilities will begin to eliminate even the most compelling justifications for physical or virtual servers.

End user devices become mobile, with the only real requirement being a high definition display, input device, and high speed network connection (not this does not rely on “Internet” connections). Applications and other information and decision support resources are accessed someplace in the “cloud,” relieving the user from the burden of device applications and storage.

The IT department is no longer responsible for physical infrastructure

If we consider disciplines such as TOGAF (The open Group Architecture Framework), ITIL (Service Delivery and Management Framework), or COBIT (Governance and Holistic Organizational Enablement), a common theme emerges for IT groups.

IT organizations must become full members of an organization’s business team

If we consider the potential of systems integration, interoperability, and exploitation of large data (or “big data”) within organization’s, and externally among trading partners, governments, and others, the need for IT managers and professionals to graduate from the device world to the true information management world becomes a great career and future opportunity.

But this requires IT professionals to reconsider those skills and training needed to fully become a business team member and contributor to an organization’s strategic vision for the future.  Those skills include enterprise architecture, governance modeling, data analytics, and a view of standards and interoperability of data.  The value of a network routing certification, data center facility manager, or software installer will edge towards near zero within a few short years.

Harsh, but true.  Think of the engineers who specialized in digital telephone switches in the 1990s and early 2000s.  They are all gone.  Either retrained, repurposed, or unemployed.  The same future is hovering on the IT manager’s horizon.

So the call to action is simple.  If you are a mid-career IT professional, or new IT professional just entering the job market,  prepare yourself for a new age of IT.  Try to distance yourself from being stuck in a device-driven career path, and look at engaging and preparing yourself for contributing to the organization’s ability to fully exploit information from a business perspective, an architectural perspective, and fully indulge in a rapidly evolving and changing information services world.

SDNs in the Carrier Hotel

SDN_interconnections Carrier hotels are an integral part of global communications infrastructure.  The carrier hotel serves a vital function, specifically the role of a common point of interconnection between facility-based (physical cable in either terrestrial, submarine, or satellite networks) carriers, networks, content delivery networks (CDNs), Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and even private or government networks and hosting companies.

In some locations, such as the One Wilshire Building in Los Angeles, or 60 Hudson in New York, several hundred carriers and service providers may interconnect physically within a main distribution frame (MDF), or virtually through interconnections at Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) or Ethernet Exchange points.

Carrier hotel operators understand that technology is starting to overcome many of the traditional forms of interconnection.  With 100Gbps wavelengths and port speeds, network providers are able to push many individual virtual connections through a single interface, reducing the need for individual cross connections or interconnections to establish customer or inter-network circuits.

While connections, including internet peering and VLANs have been available for many years through IXPs and use of circuit multiplexing, software defined networking (SDNs) are poised to provide a new model of interconnections at the carrier hotel, forcing not only an upgrade of supporting technologies, but also reconsideration of the entire model and concept of how the carrier hotel operates.

Several telecom companies have announced their own internal deployments of order fulfillment platforms based on SDN, including PacNet’s PEN and Level 3’s (originally Time Warner) pilot test at DukeNet, proving that circuit design and provisioning can be easily accomplished through SDN-enabled orchestration engines.

However inter-carrier circuit or service orchestration is still not yet in common use at the main carrier hotels and interconnection points.

Taking a closer look at the carrier hotel environment we will see an opportunity based on a vision which considers that if the carrier hotel operator provides an orchestration platform which allows individual carriers, networks, cloud service providers, CDNs, and other networks to connect at a common point, with standard APIs to allow communication between different participant network or service resources, then interconnection fulfillment may be completed in a matter of minutes, rather than days or weeks as is the current environment.

This capability goes even a step deeper.  Let’s say carrier “A” has an enterprise customer connected to their network.  The customer has an on-demand provisioning arrangement with Carrier “A,” allowing the customer to establish communications not only within Carrier”A’s” network resources, but also flow through the carrier hotel’s interconnection broker into say, a cloud service provider’s network.  The customer should be able to design and provision their own solutions – based on availability of internal and interconnection resources available through the carrier.

Participants will announce their available resources to the carrier hotel’s orchestration engine (network access broker), and those available resources can then be provisioned on-demnd by any other participant (assuming the participants have a service agreement or financial accounting agreement either based on the carrier hotel’s standard, or individual service agreements established between individual participants.

If we use NIST’s characteristics of cloud computing as a potential model, then the carrier hotels interconnection orchestration engine should ultimately provide participants:

  • On-demand self-service provisioning
  • Elasticity, meaning short term usage agreements, possibly even down to the minute or hour
  • Resource pooling, or a model similar to a spot market (in competing markets where multiple carriers or service providers may be able to provide the same service)
  • Measured service (usage based or usage-sensitive billing  for service use)
  • And of course broad network access – currently using either 100gbps or multiples of 100gbps (until 1tbps ports become available)

While layer 1 (physical) interconnection of network resources will always be required – the bits need to flow on fiber or wireless at some point, the future of carrier and service resource intercommunications must evolve to accept and acknowledge the need for user-driven, near real time provisioning of network and other service resources, on a global scale.

The carrier hotel will continue to play an integral role in bringing this capability to the community, and the future is likely to be based on software driven , on-demand meet-me-rooms.

PTC 2015 Wraps Up with Strong Messages on SDNs and Automation

Software Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualization (NVF) themes dominated workshops and side conversations throughout the PTC 2015 venue in Honolulu, Hawai’i this week.

Carrier SDNs SDNs, or more specifically provisioning automation platforms service provider interconnections, and have crept into nearly all marketing materials and elevator pitches in discussions with submarine cable operators, networks, Internet Exchange Points, and carrier hotels.

While some of the material may have included a bit of “SDN Washing,” for the most part each operators and service provider engaging in the discussion understands and is scrambling to address the need for communications access, and is very serious in their acknowledgement of a pending industry “Paradigm shift” in service delivery models.

Presentations by companies such as Ciena and Riverbed showed a mature service delivery structure based on SDNS, while PacNet and Level 3 Communications (formerly TW Telecom) presented functional on-demand self-service models of both service provisioning and a value added market place.

Steve Alexander from Ciena explained some of the challenges which the industry must address such as development of cross-industry SDN-enabled service delivery and provisioning standards.  In addition, as service providers move into service delivery automation, they must still be able to provide a discriminating or unique selling point by considering:

  • How to differentiate their service offering
  • How to differentiate their operations environment
  • How to ensure industry-acceptable delivery and provisioning time cycles
  • How to deal with legacy deployments

Alexander also emphasized that as an industry we need to get away from physical wiring when possible.   With 100Gbps ports, and the ability to create a software abstraction of individual circuits within the 100gbps resource pool (as an example), there is a lot of virtual or logical provision that can be accomplished without the need for dozens or hundreds off physical cross connections.

The result of this effort should be an environment within both a single service provider, as well as in a broader community marketplace such as a carrier hotel or large telecomm interconnection facility (i.e., The Westin Building, 60 Hudson, One Wilshire).  Some examples of actual and required deployments included:

  • A bandwidth on-demand marketplace
  • Data center interconnections, including within data center operators which have multiple interconnected meet-me-points spread across a geographic area
  • Interconnection to other services within the marketplace such as cloud service providers (e.g., Amazon Direct Connect, Azure, Softlayer, etc), content delivery networks, SaaS, and disaster recovery capacity and services

Robust discussions on standards also spawned debated.  With SDNs, much like any other emerging use of technologies or business models, there are both competing and complimentary standards.  Even terms such as Network Function Virtualization / NFV, while good, do not have much depth within standard taxonomies or definitions.

During the PTC 2015 session entitled  “Advanced Capabilities in the Control Plane Leveraging SDN and NFV Toward Intelligent Networks” a long listing of current standards and products supporting the “concpet” of SDNs was presented, including:

  • Open Contrail
  • Open Daylight
  • Open Stack
  • Open Flow
  • OPNFV
  • ONOS
  • OvS
  • Project Floodlight
  • Open Networking
  • and on and on….

For consumers and small network operators this is a very good development, and will certainly usher in a new era of on-demand self-service capacity provisioning, elastic provisioning (short term service contracts even down to the minute or hour), carrier hotel-based bandwidth and service  marketplaces, variable usage metering and costs, allowing a much better use of OPEX budgets.

For service providers (according to discussions with several North Asian telecom carriers), it is not quite as attractive, as they generally would like to see long term, set (or fixed) contracts or wholesale capacity sales.

The connection and integration of cloud services with telecom or network services is quite clear.  At some point provisioning of both telecom and compute/storage/application services will be through a single interface, on-demand, elastic (use only what you need and for only as long as you need it), usage-based (metered), and favor the end user.

While most operators get the message, and are either in the process of developing and deploying their first iteration solution, others simply still have a bit of homework to do.  In the words of one CEO from a very large international data center company, “we really need to have a strategy to deal with this multi-cloud, hybrid cloud, or whatever you call it thing.”

Oh my…

OSS Development for the Modern Data Center

Modern Data Centers are very complex environments.  Data center operators must have visibility into a wide range of integrated data bases, applications, and performance indicators to effectively understand and manage their operations and activities.

While each data center is different, all Data Centers share some common systems and common characteristics, including:

  • Facility inventories
  • Provisioning and customer fulfillment processes
  • Maintenance activities (including computerized maintenance management systems <CMMS>)
  • Monitoring
  • Customer management (including CRM, order management, etc.)
  • Trouble management
  • Customer portals
  • Security Systems (physical access entry/control and logical systems management)
  • Billing and Accounting Systems
  • Service usage records (power, bandwidth, remote hands, etc.)
  • Decision support system and performance management integration
  • Standards for data and applications
  • Staffing and activities-based management
  • Scheduling /calendar
  • etc…

Unfortunately, in many cases, the above systems are either done manually, have no standards, and had no automation or integration interconnecting individual back office components.  This also includes many communication companies and telecommunications carriers which previously either adhered, or claimed to adhere to Bellcore data and operations standards.

In some cases, the lack of integration is due to many mergers and acquisitions of companies which have unique, or non standard back office systems.  The result is difficulty in cross provisioning, billing, integrated customer management systems, and accounting – the day to day operations of a data center.

Modern data centers must have a high level of automation.  In particular, if a data center operator owns multiple facilities, it becomes very difficult to have a common look and feel or high level of integration allowing the company to offer a standardized product to their markets and customers.

Operational support systems or OSS, traditionally have four main components which include:

  • Support for process automation
  • Collection and storage for a wide variety of operational data
  • The use of standardized data structures and applications
  • And supporting technologies

With most commercial or public colocation and Data Centers customers and tenants organizations represent many different industries, products, and services.  Some large colocation centers may have several hundred individual customers.  Other data centers may have larger customers such as cloud service providers, content delivery networks, and other hosting companies.  While single large customers may be few, their internal hosted or virtual customers may also be at the scale of hundreds, or even thousands of individual customers.

To effectively support their customers Data Centers must have comprehensive OSS capabilities.  Given the large number of processes, data sources, and user requirements, the OSS should be designed and developed using a standard architecture and framework which will ensure OSS integration and interoperability.

OSS Components We have conducted numerous Interoperability Readiness surveys with both governments and private sector (commercial) data center operators during the past five years.  In more than 80% of surveys processes such as inventory management have been built within simple spreadsheets.  Provisioning of inventory items was normally a manual process conducted via e-mail or in some cases paper forms.

Provisioning, a manual process, resulted in some cases of double booked or double sold inventory items, as well as inefficient orders for adding additional customer-facing inventory or build out of additional data center space.

The problem often further compounded into additional problems such as missing customer billing cycles, accounting shortfalls, and management or monitoring system errors.

The new data center, including virtual data centers within cloud service providers, must develop better OSS tools and systems to accommodate the rapidly changing need for elasticity and agility in ICT systems.  This includes having as single window for all required items within the OSS.

Preparing an OSS architecture, based on a service-oriented architecture (SOA), should include use of ICT-friendly frameworks and guidance such as TOGAF and/or ITIL to ensure all visions and designs fully acknowledge and embrace the needs of each organization’s business owners and customers, and follow a comprehensive and structured development process to ensure those objectives are delivered.

Use of standard databases, APIs, service busses, security, and establishing a high level of governance to ensure a “standards and interoperability first” policy for all data center IT will allow all systems to communicate, share, reuse, and ultimately provide automated, single source data resources into all data center, management, accounting, and customer activities.

Any manual transfer of data between offices, applications, or systems must be prevented, preferring to integrate inventory, data collections and records, processes, and performance management indicators into a fully integrated and interoperable environment.  A basic rule of thought might be that if a human being has touched data, then the data likely has been either corrupted or its integrity may be brought into question.

Looking ahead to the next generation of data center services, stepping a bit higher up the customer service maturity continuum requires much higher levels of internal process and customer process automation.

Similar to NIST’s definition of cloud computing, stating the essential characteristics of cloud computing include “self-service provisioning,” “rapid elasticity,” ”measured services,” in addition to resource pooling and broadband access, it can be assumed that data center users of the future will need to order and fulfill services such as network interconnections, power, virtual space (or physical space), and other services through self-service, or on-demand ordering.

The OSS must strive to meet the following objectives:

  • Standardization
  • Interoperability
  • Reusable components and APIs
  • Data sharing

To accomplish this will require nearly all above mentioned characteristics of the OSS to have inventories in databases (not spreadsheets), process automation, and standards in data structure, APIs, and application interoperability.

And as the ultimate key success factor, management DSS will finally have potential for development of true dashboard for performance management, data analytics, and additional real-time tools for making effective organizational decisions.

You Want Money for a Data Center Buildout?

Yield to Cloud A couple years ago I attended several “fast pitch” competitions and events for entrepreneurs in Southern California, all designed to give startups a chance to “pitch” their ideas in about 60 seconds to a panel of representatives from the local investment community.  Similar to television’s “Shark Tank,” most of the ideas pitches were harshly critiqued, with the real intent of assisting participating entrepreneurs in developing a better story for approaching investors and markets.

While very few of the pitches received a strong, positive response, I recall one young guy who really set the panel back a step in awe.  The product was related to biotech, and the panel provided a very strong, positive response to the pitch.

Wishing to dig a bit deeper, one of the panel members asked the guy how much money he was looking for in an investment, and how he’d use the money.

“$5 million he responded,” with a resounding wave of nods from the panel.  “I’d use around $3 million for staffing, getting the office started, and product development.”  Another round of positive expressions.  “And then we’d spend around $2 million setting up in a data center with servers, telecoms, and storage systems.”

This time the panel looked as if they’d just taken a crisp slap to the face.  After a moment of collection, the panel spokesman launched into a dress down of the entrepreneur stating “I really like the product, and think you vision is solid.  However, with a greater then 95% chance of your company going bust within the first year, I have no desire to be stuck with $2 million worth of obsolete computer hardware, and potentially contract liabilities once you shut down your data center.  You’ve got to use your head and look at going to Amazon for your data center capacity and forget this data center idea.”

Now it was the entire audience’s turn to take a pause.

In the past IT managers really placed buying and controlling their own hardware, in their own facility, as a high priority – with no room for compromise.  For perceptions of security, a desire for personal control, or simply a concern that outsourcing would limit their own career potential, sever closets and small data centers were a common characteristic of most small offices.

At some point a need to have proximity to Internet or communication exchange points, or simple limitations on local facility capacity started forcing a migration of enterprise data centers into commercial colocation.  For the most part, IT managers still owned and controlled any hardware outsourced into the colocation facility, and most agreed that in general colocation facilities offered higher uptime, fewer service disruptions, and good performance, in particular for eCommerce sites.

Now we are at a new IT architecture crossroads.  Is there really any good reason for a startup, medium, or even large enterprise to continue operating their own data center, or even their own hardware within a colocation facility?  Certainly if the average CFO or business unit manager had their choice, the local data center would be decommissioned and shut down as quickly as possible.  The CAPEX investment, carrying hardware on the books for years of depreciation, lack of business agility, and dangers of business continuity and disaster recovery costs force the question of “why don’t we just rent IT capacity from a cloud service provider?”

Many still question the security of public clouds, many still question the compliance issues related to outsourcing, and many still simply do not want to give up their “soon-to-be-redundant” data center jobs.

Of course it is clear most large cloud computing companies have much better resources available to manage security than a small company, and have made great advances in compliance certifications (mostly due to the US government acknowledging the role of cloud computing and changing regulations to accommodate those changes).  If we look at the US Government’s FedRAMP certification program as an example, security, compliance, and management controls are now a standard – open for all organizations to study and adopt as appropriate.

So we get back to the original question, what would justify a company in continuing to develop data centers, when a virtual data center (as the first small step in adopting a cloud computing architecture) will provide better flexibility, agility, security, performance, and lower cost than operating a local of colocated IT physical infrastructure?  Sure, exceptions exist, including some specialized interfaces on hardware to support mining, health care, or other very specialized activities.  However if you re not in the computer or switch manufacturing business – can you really continue justifying CAPEX expenditures on IT?

IT is quickly becoming a utility.  As a business we do not plan to build roads, build water distribution, or build our own power generation plants.  Compute, telecom, and storage resources are becoming a utility, and IT managers (and data center / colocation companies) need to do a comprehensive review of their business and strategy, and find a way to exploit this technology reality, rather than allow it to pass us by.

Business Drives Transition to IT as a Utility

Is there a point where business can safely assume they have hit the limit of what traditional IT organizations have to offer?  In an Internet and data driven world, does IT simply lack the agility and depth needed to fulfill business requirements and need for innovation?

Parts of cloud computing have chimed a loud and painful wake up call for many IT managers.  Even at the most simple level, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), it might be fair to say this is simply a utility to accelerate data center imagedecommissioning, and the process of physically decoupling underlying compute, storage, and network infrastructure from the business.

Due to a lack of PaaS and SaaS interface and building block standards, we still have a long ways to go before we can effectively call either utilities, or truly serve the needs of interoperability and systems integration.

Of course this idea is not new.  Negroponte kicked off the idea in his great view of the future in the “Big Switch,” with a lot of great analogies about compute, network, and storage capacity as a modern day adaptation of the electrical grid.

We like to look at the analogy of roads (won’t look at water today, but the analogy still applies).  Roads are built using standards.  In the US the Department of Transportation establishes the need, and construction standards for Interstate Highways, and US highways.  The states establish standards and requirements for state roads, and county / local governments establish standards for everything else.

The roads are standard.  We know what to expect when driving on an Interstate Highway.  Whether it be bridge height, lane sizing, on / off ramps, or even rest stops – it is hard to be surprised when driving the Interstate Highway system.

However the highway system does not unnecessarily inhibit development of vehicles which use the highways – there are hundreds of different makes, models, and sizes of vehicles on the road, and all use the same basic infrastructure.

Getting back to cloud computing, to make our IaaS a true utility, we need to ensure interoperability and portability within the IaaS underlying technologies, and allow for true on-demand portability of the physical infrastructure, management systems, provisioning systems, and billing systems.  Just like with the electrical grid.  And standards much like the highway system, with the flexibility to support predictable, innovative ideas.

Once we have removed the burden of underlying physical IT infrastructure from our planning model, we can focus our energy on higher levels of utility, including PaaS and SaaS.

Enterprise Architecture frameworks, such as TOGAF, promote the use of Architecture Building Blocks (ABB) and Solution Building Blocks (SBB).  Where ABBs may define global, industry, and local standards, SBBs provide definition for solutions which are specific to a project, and do not normally have either standards or other reusable components to draw from.  However, development of SBBs should still acknowledge and have a design which will support either an existing  standard, or broader development of new standard interfaces in the future.

This includes the most important component of open, standard, and reusable interfaces (APIs) which support service-orientation, interoperability, and portability of data.  Which may also be considered characteristics of the future PaaS and SaaS utilities.  Or in more simple terms, edging closer to the death of proprietary data or physical interfaces and functionality.

Now a reminder – at this level we are still striving to create utilities which will ultimately reduce or eliminate our need for specialized IT.  Yes, there are exceptions where specific equipment interfaces are unique to a technology, such as rock crushers in the mining industry.  However, for example, we are still able to conduct agile business on a global scale with all our customers, competitors, suppliers, and vendors all using compatible email.

That is the objective, to make the underlying infrastructure, including much of PaaS and SaaS, standard, and serve he needs of business innovation, without the danger of being inhibited by proprietary and non-standard or compatible interfaces.

Build a business on innovative ideas, create competitive or unique selling points and products, focus energy on developing those innovations, and relieve yourselves of the burden resulting from carrying excessive and unproductive IT infrastructure below the business.

And then IT is a utility

Focusing on Cloud Portability and Interoperability

Cloud Computing has helped us understand both the opportunity, and the need, to decouple physical IT infrastructure from the requirements of business.  In theory cloud computing greatly enhances an organization’s ability to not only decommission inefficient data center resources, but even more importantly eases the process an organization needs to develop when moving to integration and service-orientation within supporting IT systems.

Current cloud computing standards, such as published by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have provided very good definitions, and solid reference architecture for understanding at a high level a vision of cloud computing.

image However these definitions, while good for addressing the vision of cloud computing, are not at a level of detail needed to really understand the potential impact of cloud computing within an existing organization, nor the potential of enabling data and systems resources to meet a need for interoperability of data in a 2020 or 2025 IT world.

The key to interoperability, and subsequent portability, is a clear set of standards.  The Internet emerged as a collaboration of academic, government, and private industry development which bypassed much of the normal technology vendor desire to create a proprietary product or service.  The cloud computing world, while having deep roots in mainframe computing, time-sharing, grid computing, and other web hosting services, was really thrust upon the IT community with little fanfare in the mid-2000s.

While NIST, the Open GRID Forum, OASIS, DMTF, and other organizations have developed some levels of standardization for virtualization and portability, the reality is applications, platforms, and infrastructure are still largely tightly coupled, restricting the ease most developers would need to accelerate higher levels of integration and interconnections of data and applications.

NIST’s Cloud Computing Standards Roadmap (SP 500-291 v2) states:

…the migration to cloud computing should enable various multiple cloud platforms seamless access between and among various cloud services, to optimize the cloud consumer expectations and experience.

Cloud interoperability allows seamless exchange and use of data and services among various cloud infrastructure offerings and to the the data and services exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together.”

Very easy to say, however the reality is, in particular with PaaS and SaaS libraries and services, that few fully interchangeable components exist, and any information sharing is a compromise in flexibility.

The Open Group, in their document “Cloud Computing Portability and Interoperability” simplifies the problem into a single statement:

“The cheaper and easier it is to integrate applications and systems, the closer you are getting to real interoperability.”

The alternative is of course an IT world that is restrained by proprietary interfaces, extending the pitfalls and dangers of vendor lock-in.

What Can We Do?

The first thing is, the cloud consumer world must make a stand and demand vendors produce services and applications based on interoperability and data portability standards.  No IT organization in the current IT maturity continuum should be procuring systems that do not support an open, industry-standard, service-oriented infrastructure, platform, and applications reference model (Open Group).

In addition to the need for interoperable data and services, the concept of portability is essential to developing, operating, and maintaining effective disaster management and continuity of operations procedures.  No IT infrastructure, platform, or application should be considered which does not allow and embrace portability.  This includes NIST’s guidance stating:

“Cloud portability allows two or more kinds of cloud infrastructures to seamlessly use data and services from one cloud system and be used for other cloud systems.”

The bottom line for all CIOs, CTOs, and IT managers – accept the need for service-orientation within all existing or planned IT services and systems.  Embrace Service-Oriented Architectures, Enterprise Architecture, and at all costs the potential for vendor lock-in when considering any level of infrastructure or service.

Standards are the key to portability and interoperability, and IT organizations have the power to continue forcing adoption and compliance with standards by all vendors.  Do not accept anything which does not fully support the need for data interoperability.

Adopting Critical Thinking in Information Technology

The scenario is a data center, late on a Saturday evening.  A telecom distribution system fails, and operations staff are called in from their weekend to quickly find the problem and restore operations as quickly as possible.

Critical Thinking As time goes on,  many customers begin to call in, open trouble tickets, upset at systems outages and escalating customer disruptions.

The team spends hours trying to fix a rectifier providing DC power to a main telecommunications distribution switch, and start by replacing each systems component one-by-one hoping to find the guilty part.  The team grows very frustrated due to not only fatigue, but also their failure in being able to s0lve the problem.  After many hours the team finally realizes there is no issue with either the telecom switch, or rectifier supplying DC power to the switch.  What could the problem be?

Finally, after many hours of troubleshooting, chasing symptoms, and hit / miss component replacements,  an electrician discovers there is a panel circuit that has failed due to many years of misuse (for those electrical engineers it was actually a circuit that oxidized and shorted due to “over-amping” the circuit – without preventive maintenance or routine checks).

The incident highlighted a reality – the organization working on the problem had very little critical thinking or problem solving skills.  They chased each obvious symptom, but never really addressed or successfully identified the underlying problem.  Great technicians, poor critical thinkers.   And a true story.

While this incident was a data center-related trouble shooting fail, we frequently fail to use good critical thinking in not only trouble shooting, but also developing opportunities and solutions for our business users and customers.

A few years ago I took a break from the job and spent some time working on personal development.  In addition to collecting certifications in TOGAF, ITIL, and other aerchitecture-related subjects I added a couple of additional classes, including Kepner-Tregoe (K-T) and Kepner-Fourie (K-F) Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Courses.

Not bad schools of thought, and a good refresher course reminding me of those long since forgotten systems management skills learned in graduate school – heck, nearly 30 years ago.

Here is the problem: IT systems and business use of technologies have rapidly developed during the past 10 years, and that rate of change appears to be accelerating.  Processes and standards developed 10, 15, or 20 years ago are woefully inadequate to support much of our technology and business-related design, development, and operations.  Tacit knowledge, tacit skills, and gut feelings cannot be relied on to correctly identify and solve problems we encounter in our fast-paced IT world.

Keep in mind, this discussion is not only related to problem solving, but also works just as well when considering new product or solution development for new and emerging business opportunities or challenges.

Critical Thinking forces us to know what a problem (or opportunity) is, know and apply the differences between inductive and deductive reasoning, identify premises and conclusions, good and bad arguments, and acknowledge issue descriptions and explanations (Erlandson).

Critical Thinking “religions” such as Kepner-Fourie (K-F) provide a process and model for solving problems.  Not bad if you have the time to create and follow heavy processes, or even better can automate much of the process.  However even studying extensive system like K-T and K-F will continue to drive the need for establishing an appropriate system for responding to events.

Regardless of the approach you may consider, repeated exposure to critical thinking concepts and practice will force us to  intellectually step away from chasing symptoms or over-reliance on tacit knowledge (automatic thinking) when responding to problems and challenges.

For IT managers, think of it as an intellectual ITIL Continuous Improvement Cycle – we always need to exercise our brains and thought process.  Status quo, or relying on time-honored solutions to problems will probably not be sufficient to bring our IT organizations into the future.  We need to continue ensuring our assumptions are based on facts, and avoid undue influence – in particular by vendors, to ensure our stakeholders have confidence in our problem or solution development process, and we have a good awareness of business and technology transformations impacting our actions.

In addition to those courses and critical thinking approaches listed above, exposure and study of those or any of the following can only help ensure we continue to exercise and hone our critical thinking skills.

  • A3 Management
  • Toyota Kata
  • PDSA (Plan-Do-Adjust-Study)

And lots of other university or related courseware.  For myself, I keep my interest alive by reading an occasional eBook (Such as “How to Think Clearly, A Guide to Critical Thinking” by Doug Erlandson – great to read during long flights), and Youtube videos.

What do you “think?”

Nurturing the Marriage of Cloud Computing and SOAs

In 2009 we began consulting jobs with governments in developing countries with the primary objective to consolidate data centers across government ministries and agencies into centralized, high capacity and quality data centers.  At the time, nearly all individual ministry or agency data infrastructure was built into either small computers rooms or server closets with some added “brute force” air conditioning, no backup generators, no data back up, superficial security, and lots of other ailments.

CC-SOA The vision and strategy was that if we consolidated inefficient, end of life, and high risk IT infrastructure into a standardized and professionally managed facility, national information infrastructure would not only be more secure, but through standardization, volume purchasing agreements, some server virtualization, and development of broadband infrastructure most of the IT needs of government would be easily fulfilled.

Then of course cloud computing began to mature, and the underlying technologies of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) became feasible.  Now, not only were the governments able to decommission inefficient and high-risk IS environments, they would also be able to build virtual data centers  with levels of on-demand compute, storage, and network resources.  Basic data center replacement.

Even those remaining committed “server hugger” IT managers and fiercely independent governmental organizations cloud hardly argue the benefits of having access to disaster recovery storage capacity though the centralized data center.

As the years passed, and we entered 2014, not only did cloud computing mature as a business model, but senior management began to increase their awareness of various aspects of cloud computing, including the financial benefits, standardization of IT resources, the characteristics of cloud computing, and potential for Platform and Software as a Service (PaaS/SaaS) to improve both business agility and internal decision support systems.

At the same time, information and organizational architecture, governance, and service delivery frameworks such as TOGAF, COBIT, ITIL, and Risk Analysis training reinforced the value of both data and information within an organization, and the need for IT systems to support higher level architectures supporting decision support systems and market interactions (including Government to Government, Business, and Citizens for the public sector) .

2015 will bring cloud computing and architecture together at levels just becoming comprehensible to much of the business and IT world.  The open Group has a good first stab at building a standard for this marriage with their Service-Oriented Cloud Computing Infrastructure (SOCCI). According to the SOCCI standard,

“Infrastructure is a foundational element for enterprise architecture. Infrastructure has been  traditionally provisioned in a physical manner. With the evolution of virtualization technologies  and application of service-orientation to infrastructure, it can now be offered as a service.

Service-orientation principles originated in the business and application architecture arena. After  repeated, successful application of these principles to application architecture, IT has evolved to  extending these principles to the infrastructure.”

At first glance the SOCII standard appears to be a document which creates a mapping between enterprise architecture (TOGAF) and cloud computing.  At second glance the SOCCI standard really steps towards tightening the loose coupling of standard service-oriented architectures through use of cloud computing tools included with all service models (IaaS/PaaS/SaaS).

The result is an architectural vision which is easily capable of absorbing existing IT requirements, as well as incorporating emerging big data analytics models, interoperability, and enterprise architecture.

Since the early days of 2009 discussion topics with government and enterprise customers have shown a marked transition from simply justifying decommissioning of high risk data centers to how to manage data sharing, interoperability, or the potential for over standardization and other service delivery barriers which might inhibit innovation – or ability of business units to quickly respond to rapidly changing market opportunities.

2015 will be an exciting year for information and communications technologies.  For those of us in the consulting and training business, the new year is already shaping up to be the busiest we have seen.

Now that We Have Adopted IaaS…

Providing guidance or consulting to organizations on cloud computing topics can be really easy, or really tough.  In the past most of the initial engagement was dedicated to training and building awareness with your customer.  The next step was finding a high value, low risk application or service that could be moved to Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) to solve an immediate problem, normally associated with disaster recovery or data backups.

Service Buss and DSS As the years have continued, dynamics changed.  On one hand, IT professionals and CIOs began to establish better knowledge of what virtualization, cloud computing, and outsourcing could do for their organization.  CFOs became aware of the financial potential of virtualization and cloud computing, and a healthy dialog between IT, operations, business units, and the CFO.

The “Internet Age” has also driven global competition down to the local level, forcing nearly all organizations to respond more rapidly to business opportunities.  If a business unit cannot rapidly respond to the opportunity, which may require product and service development, the opportunity can be lost far more quickly than in the past.

In the old days, procurement of IT resources could require a fairly lengthy cycle.  In the Internet Age, if an IT procurement cycle takes > 6 months, there is probably little chance to effectively meet the greatly shortened development cycle competitors in other continents – or across the street may be able to fulfill.

With IaaS the procurement cycle of IT resources can be within minutes, allowing business units to spend far more time developing products, services, and solutions, rather than dealing with the frustration of being powerless to respond to short window opportunities.  This is of course addressing the essential cloud characteristics of Rapid Elasticity and On-Demand Self-Service.

In addition to on-demand and elastic resources, IaaS has offered nearly all organizations the option of moving IT resources into either public or private cloud infrastructure.  This has the benefit of allowing data center decommissioning, and re-commissioning into a virtual environment.  The cost of operating data centers, maintaining data centers and IT equipment, and staffing data centers vs. outsourcing that infrastructure into a cloud is very interesting to CFOs, and a major justification for replacing physical data centers with virtual data centers.

The second dynamic, in addition to greater professional knowledge and awareness of cloud computing, is the fact we are starting to recruit cloud-aware employees graduating from universities and making their first steps into careers and workforce.  With these “cloud savvy” young people comes deep experience with interoperable data, social media, big data, data analytics, and an intellectual separation between access devices and underlying IT infrastructure.

The Next Step in Cloud Evolution

OK, so we all are generally aware of the components of IaaS, Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS).  Let’s have a quick review of some standout features supported or enabled by cloud:

  • Increased standardization of applications
  • Increased standardization of data bases
  • Federation of security systems (Authentication and Authorization)
  • Service busses
  • Development of other common applications (GIS, collaboration, etc.)
  • Transparency of underlying hardware

Now let’s consider the need for better, real-time, accurate decision support systems (DSS).  Within any organization the value of a DSS is dependent on data integrity, data access (open data within/without an organization), and single-source data.

Frameworks for developing an effective DSS are certainly available, whether it is TOGAF, the US Federal Enterprise Architecture Framework (FEAF), interoperability frameworks, and service-oriented architectures (SOA).  All are fully compatible with the tools made available within the basic cloud service delivery models (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS).

The Open Group (same organization which developed TOGAF) has responded with their model of a Cloud Computing Service Oriented Infrastructure (SOCCI) Framework.  The SOCCI is identified as the marriage of a Service-Oriented Infrastructure and cloud computing.  The SOCCI also incorporates aspects of TOGAF into the framework, which may drive more credibility into a SOCCI architectural development process.

The expected result of this effort is for existing organizations dealing with departmental “silos” of IT infrastructure, data, and applications, a level of interoperability and DSS development based on service-orientation, using a well-designed underlying cloud infrastructure.  This data sharing can be extended beyond the (virtual) firewall to others in an organization’s trading or governmental community, resulting in  DSS which will become closer and closer to an architecture vision based on the true value of data produced, or made available to an organization.

While we most certainly need IaaS, and the value of moving to virtual data centers is justified by itself, we will not truly benefit from the potential of cloud computing until we understand the potential of data produced and available to decision makers.

The opportunity will need a broad spectrum of contributors and participants with awareness and training in disciplines ranging from technical capabilities, to enterprise architecture, to service delivery, and governance acceptable to a cloud-enabled IT world.

For those who are eagerly consuming training and knowledge in the above skills and knowledge, the future is anything but cloudy.  For those who believe in status quo, let’s hope you are close to pension and retirement, as this is your future.

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