IT infrastructure is a critical foundation for business applications, but is expensive, slow to change and hard to manage. Yet it’s back on the table as an important source of real business benefits.
Real-time infrastructure (RTI) is a very simple idea. Get access to a set of servers and network capacity that grows and shrinks as needs demand, and only pay for the bits that you need at any moment in time. Add complete self-management into the picture and you have the vision for RTI. With RTI, business demand for IT resources is automatically met, infrastructure is efficient – it is self-managing – fixed costs replace variable pay-per-use costs, and the enterprise can move expensive, rapidly depreciating assets off its balance sheet.
It all sounds just a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? There are three strong reasons why RTI isn’t practical yet. It’s almost impossible to make a business case for it; it’s not yet technically feasible; and vendor licensing agreements have not kept up with the technology. However, by making carefully placed investments today, it is possible to navigate towards RTI tomorrow.
IT infrastructure maturity
When plotting a course to real-time infrastructure, it’s useful to know the stages to go through on the way. Gartner has identified seven stages of IT infrastructure maturity:
The first stage for most enterprise’s infrastructure is basic unintegrated and incompatible sets of servers, often dotted around the enterprise. One server; one application. Next comes centralized infrastructure, where servers are picked up and shipped to one or more centralized locations. Next comes, standardized infrastructure; fewer types and versions of hardware and software to reduce costs. The next stage is rationalized infrastructure with even fewer boxes and less software, more sharing, less duplication and fewer inefficiencies. In virtualized infrastructure, applications transparently share processing and storage, using a virtualization layer. And in service-based infrastructure, components are managed as end-to-end services to meet service-level agreements. The sixth stage on the road to RTI is service-based provisioning, where rules engines allocate or de-allocate resources depending on demand. Finally, there’s RTI itself, a policy-based infrastructure where services are automatically and dynamically allocated to business processes, according to business policy rules.
At present, most enterprises’ IT infrastructure is moving from basic to centralized and standardized. The final two stages – service-based infrastructure and policy-based infrastructure – will be fully achievable in the future, as key technologies mature.
Although RTI technologies are not yet living up to the razzmatazz, some aspects are mature and delivering value. For example, highly available hardware, network load-balancing and storage-area networks are relatively mature technologies.
Yet at the other end of the spectrum, software for dynamically provisioning servers and storage, and automated business policy managers that govern how computing resources are applied to business services, do not currently exist in a production-ready form.
To navigate the infrastructure path, CIOs need to have a clear roadmap that aligns with business needs. Here are some best practices to help get you there.
Align all activities with business needs. Use this as the base for business case justifications and commercial negotiations.
Plan for short-term ROI and long-term vision. Aim to reduce complexity at every stage. Create a plan of how many components you will remove over defined time periods.
Involve, educate and sensitize stakeholders. Increase the shared understanding between business and IS about the less tangible benefits of infrastructure, especially agility.
Mitigate risk through partnerships. Look for external service-provider relationships that align interests. Re-evaluate sourcing options as service-provider capabilities improve.
Real-time infrastructure is emerging as pieces of it come together. Each piece represents a choice for CIOs and a potential step on the road toward the value that RTI represents. By engaging stakeholders, clarifying options and matching business needs, CIOs are in a position to start harvesting that value.
–Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.