Group snapping whip to tame infrastructure lion

It’s a small group tackling a great big computing problem.

The Infrastructure Management Institute (IMI) out of Northern Kentucky University is wrestling with the greatest single obstacle to safer and highly reliable computing: The inability to efficiently control and manage the highly distributed technology that drives most businesses. If successful, IT infrastructure – things like servers, network routers, switches, and management and security applications – would work together more smoothly, perform better, and likely cost less to maintain.

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In other words, computing needs to smarten up. It’s a pretty tall order for a rather small and obscure group of idealists, but their cause definitely matters to businesses.

To understand why IT infrastructure must be brought under greater control, it’s necessary to backtrack a bit. Advances in computing technology, particularly during the past 15 years or so, have largely focused on what technocrats like to describe as “feeds and speeds.” Innovation has brought the IT world lightening quick microchips, wired networks with speed to burn, and a selection of personal productivity, business, finance and accounting applications for small business and even home users that 25 years ago would have only been available to major corporations. Computing and data networking have become the fabric of everyday business life, underpinning vital processes and transactional activity. It’s all about anytime-anywhere information delivery and extending business resources to anyone.

As a result, poor performance and downtime are intolerable for many companies. Yet while computing today works extremely well in isolation on a company network, the same can’t be said for distributed systems. It has become easy enough to connect one system to another, and even some types of applications to other types, but extending things too far beyond known business IT boundaries – to the Internet or to other networks and systems not under your IT department’s direct control – is increasingly risky. Too risky for many organizations.

The problem is rooted in the fact that so much of today’s IT infrastructure isn’t – or can’t be – managed properly. That means it’s almost impossible to tell where data gets sent across networks, where it might originate, how it travels and where it may end up. As a result, businesses are inclined to proceed with extreme caution when it comes to opening up access to their network resources or extending their IT capabilities.

For that reason, IT has arguably hit a wall. As things currently stand, computing simply can’t provide much value to companies beyond what’s currently available unless major breakthroughs are made in controlling and managing the power of computing.

Enter IMI. This non-profit collection of academics, business innovators and technology vendors hopes to become an international resource centre for IT infrastructure management and best practices. Knowledge sharing is the key as the IMI seeks to become a collaborative home to the field’s experts, many of whom are currently toiling in isolation on new tools and techniques to enable software programs to work more smoothly together, and make systems, networks and software easier to manage.

“There needs to be somebody looking out for tomorrow and taking IT to a place where it isn’t,” says Tim Ferguson, executive director of the IMI. “We’re building the content and the concept. We’ll set up workgroups for network and systems management, and speak with those who are working on things. We’re looking to bring in vendors who are focused on enterprise and infrastructure management, key application providers, and major companies who utilize IT management.”

The IMI will officially launch in May, and in the immediate term will organize a professional organization dedicated to advancing computing infrastructure management. Members will collaborate on research, teach best practices to one another, build a community of common interest in IT control, and evangelize the management message.

“It’s time to really get together and think about computing infrastructure management in a much more strategic way,” says Mr. Ferguson, adding that most businesses have relied on an approach similar to using “rubber bands and scotch tape to keep things together.”

The importance of an association like IMI is to rally experts and an entire industry to the cause. Individual companies neither want, nor can they afford, disparate and expensive management tools and systems.

“We really believe that a small, medium or large company doesn’t want to compete at an infrastructure level,” he says. “They want infrastructure to work in one way. It should be automated and efficient.”

That’s for sure. And they’d rather not build it themselves.

A gathering place for well-intended IT infrastructure management experts is a good start. But can a few passionate technicians and researchers tucked away in Northern Kentucky make a big difference?

History is definitely against success. IT management and control is an age-old problem that still hasn’t been licked. But most businesses know that the hardest – and most expensive part – of computing technology is simply keeping things up and running. Market researchers such as Info-Tech Research say approximately two-thirds of what a business spends on IT is dedicated to maintenance and management – activities carried out mostly by people rather than automated processes.

“It should be automated,” says Mr. Ferguson. “There’s no reason, technology-wise, why your computing infrastructure shouldn’t be automated.”

So let’s root for these little guys. The IMI has the right idea. IT infrastructures need tighter control and management, if only to make computing safer in an increasingly more dangerous cyber-world.

With support from the business community, a small few just might make a big difference.

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