Running the Gauntlet: The Challenge of Supporting the Data Center in the New Economy

What is the New Economy, and what does it mean for the IT professionals that have to support e-businesses searching for greater interconnectivity, data dependency and more availability? Understanding the economics of the e-business can help IT know how to support the technological strategies and support corollaries needed for success in the New Economy, as well as providing some hints for the future.

Service and support today bears only a faint resemblance to the critical function we all remember from the days of the glass house. To say that things have changed in this increasingly "wired and wireless world" of ours is a major understatement. The emergence of the New Economy requires smarter technology strategies to help organizations cope with the challenges ahead. As the economy inches ever closer to unprecedented levels of interconnectivity, data dependency and skyrocketing demand for even more availability, data center professionals find that their roles for supporting all this technology continue to change.

What exactly is happening today, and what do IT professionals need to know to get and stay ahead in the challenge to support the technological engines of the New Economy? To be certain, only a broad understanding of the issues – and their support corollaries – can provide the necessary clues to forecasting the future requirements.

Redefining the Data Center

First things first. To understand the support challenges now facing data center professionals, we need to acknowledge what is happening to organizations from a technology standpoint. According to a recent GartnerGroup study, 80 percent of companies are already deploying e-business models. Gartner has also projected that between 1999 and 2004, spending on e-business services will climb by a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 46.3 percent worldwide.

Within companies, the infrastructure picture is also changing – becoming more extensive and more technically diverse in ways not even imagined just a few years ago. Just look at the latest developments in the data center.

There can be little doubt that the data center is becoming more and more "externalized." Essentially, this means that all the data and processes are becoming more accessible to parties external to the organization, a far cry from the internal focus of the past. Trends like e-commerce and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) are helping to shape a more customer-centered approach for both transactions and access to information. Today, customers expect to be able to rapidly access information about a company, its products and its transactions over the Web, across almost every industry. According to Meta Group, by 2005, more than 95 percent of legacy data will be accessible via I*net (Internet/intranet/extranet) technologies.

What’s more, customers are interacting more frequently with an organization and increasingly – here’s the critical part – in realtime. Think about what this means for your own organization. This pressure – the expectations of customers – serves to up the ante for IT professionals, and underscores the extent of the challenge confronting them and the CIOs who manage them.

Just a few years ago, the phrase "data center" meant something very specific in IT circles. It used to be synonymous with mainframes, raised floors, chilled water and a secure physical location. What a difference a little time makes. Although the mainframe and MVS certainly still play the major role in many large computing environments, a kaleidoscope of other technologies has emerged to fill various niches. Now, there are far more platforms and applications – mainframe, midrange, different servers (from "Wintel" to RISC-based systems) playing larger and larger roles in an organization’s data center. Manufacturers, like IBM and Sun Microsystems, continue to see success in server sales, another indicator of this trend. According to Meta Group, "All primary enterprise service environments will experience robust annual capacity growth rates through 2004, with NT leading at 50-plus percent, UNIX at 40-plus percent, OS/390 and OS/400 at 25-plus percent."

More significant, perhaps, than the convergence of these technologies, is the powerful impact of the network as a force that links it all together. How prophetic seems the Sun Microsystems tagline conceived a few years ago: "The Network IS the computer." The modern network – with its broadband capability, reliability and high speed – is making the physical aspect of the data center less of a requirement for many organizations.

Today, there is a progression from the physical data center, to a logical one. So, rather than focus on a room, or series of rooms, at a given location, the focus has shifted to the data itself. In effect, the data is at the center of things now, not the data center. CIOs now worry about the central management of the all-important data, regardless of where it resides.

The implications of all this in terms of service and support cannot be overstated. In that respect, the question "What is the data center today?" is a relevant one. At DecisionOne, for example, we refer to this environment as "Centrally Managed Systems," or CMS. The CMS concept, which is not dependent solely on the notion of physical locality, can help guide the strategy for delivering services of all kinds. It is less important today to segregate service components into mainframe, midrange and desktop service forces. There are advantages to looking at things as either a CMS environment or a distributed systems environment.

If we accept the idea that the very definition of the data center has changed, almost without most of us realizing it, then we must take care to observe the pressures this change puts on IT professionals. Ultimately, the externalized customer-centered environment must be effectively supported by data center managers who understand the issues. Consider the following:

• Organizations need to capture and leverage data about their customers that can be turned into business opportunities.

• They also bear the responsibility of providing consistent processes and data availability for customers, employees, vendors, suppliers and other organizations and individuals with whom they interact.

• The requirements for qualified expertise – both internal and external – have never been higher, or harder to fill.

• The pressures of the New Economy, which is oriented toward ever-greater speed, require agility in the development of systems and processes.

• Customers in particular require ever increasing system availability, reliability and security. This trend is likely to continue.

• Tightening controls over budget mean return on investment is always an issue.

• The Big Blue shop of the past has given way to a rainbow of competing platforms and vendors in a massive convergence of technologies – all of which require support at some level.

• Security issues are emerging as another key issue. No longer are the "pipes" proprietary. Today, data flows across open networks; in only the best case scenarios is it on a virtual private network, which is still relatively open because of the broad access to it.

While many of the changes in the IT world are, no doubt, a cause of concern for some, they also represent a threshold to new opportunities. The data and the path to access it can now become opportunities for problem resolution for both the business and the customer – if IT professionals seize the opportunity to meet the challenges head on.

A Technology Support Prescription

One of the toughest challenges facing IT professionals lies in selecting a service and support supplier that can help manage the above-mentioned issues. In the New Economy, this selection process must be judged by slightly different criteria from times past. But, what exactly does one look for today?

Knowing how to select a service provider can make all the difference between successfully meeting the organization’s IT challenges and falling far short. Outside help should meet the following key criteria for optimum effectiveness in the New Economy:

A diverse technical infrastructure. Because of the convergence factor mentioned earlier, service suppliers must be able to support most major computing platforms and technologies currently in use. Odds are you may not find many that can support all the platforms and technologies you utilize, but your selection should offer you the widest range of support possibilities. Find the one that offers the broadest possible solution for multiple platforms.

Broad geographic coverage. Very few providers can truly offer multivendor, multiplatform support on a nationwide or global basis. But, your supplier should be prepared to provide the broadest geographic coverage possible, with multiple locations capable of meeting the far-flung needs of today’s global businesses.

Trained technical field force. The New Economy requires a technical knowledge and facility with multiple systems and technologies. No longer will single platform expertise suffice; technicians must be conversant in a number of technologies commonly in use. There is also a growing need for back-up technical resources, as well as ongoing training on new technologies.

Breadth and depth of services. Breadth in providing support across a diverse array of platforms from a variety of OEMs is now a basic requirement. Depth of expertise is needed within each platform and technology to maximize your system uptime. A comprehensive lineup of services should typically include hardware support, vendor management, technology planning and consulting, capacity planning, single point of failure, technology and software deployment services and network support services.

Emphasis on predictive service capabilities. What’s more, the provider you select must be able to focus on what we call "predictive services." The New Economy revolves around a higher standard than the old break/fix mentality of the past. High-availability services, such as remote monitoring and management should be a key criteria in your selection process.

Automated call initiation capabilities. Many machines are now able to "call home" when there’s a problem, and start the process for remediation. This can be done either independently or with the aid of the service provider’s tools – without the IT professional having to initiate the action. Service providers should have mechanisms in place to capture these machine-initiated remote requests. Automated requests can be initiated from such platforms as IBM 3090s, CMOS, AS/400, DEC, EMC disk drives, and others.

Greater access to service requests and update information. In the service and support world today, businesses expect a greater availability of service information as well. Today, many service providers have systems in place to permit IT professionals to initiate or receive status updates to service calls, through the Web or other electronic means.

Single point of contact and accountability. This point is often overlooked, since it goes beyond technical capabilities to focus on the administrative burden typically placed on IT staff. What the CIO needs is a flexible team to go in and solve the issue quickly, without finger pointing. Using one point of contact and accountability will yield significant time savings and hassle, as fewer service agreements and service providers will be required.

While the above list may seem like a tall order to fill, it’s important that IT professionals stay focused on the needs of their own organization and its customers, employees, suppliers and other business stakeholders. These criteria points should form the basis for a technology support "prescription" that can provide a rational foundation for judging the capabilities of competing service providers in the New Economy.

What Does the Future Hold?

Today’s CIO has a lot to worry about. And, unfortunately, the worry will continue to grow, especially with the demand for broadband deployment on the rise. Imagine the possible ramifications of just that one point.

We will continue to see more and more virtual offices spring up within organizations of all sizes. Thanks to the proliferation of telecommuting, the CIO’s worries will soon extend beyond the simple reach of today’s centrally-managed environment to desktops in people’s homes. The focus of the data center will no doubt continue to branch outward at a greater rate.

In addition, the model for the entire service and support industry is facing its own pressures. Hardware is becoming more reliable and more cost effective. The amount of money that can be derived by providers from traditional on-site maintenance continues to shrink, and companies are aware of this.

This necessitates less on-site presence, and forces providers to find more cost-efficient means of getting the job done. We will certainly see more remote support and guidance services emerge, such as joint collaboration software, which will replace the simple break/fix services of the past.

Consequently, ancillary services will become increasingly more important. The ability to coordinate an entire mixed-shop environment with a single point of contact will reset the rules of the service and support game.

In the near future, we’ll see another pivotal point in the expansion of this Information Age: interoperability among various platforms and devices. For example, storage devices will become more interoperable between competing vendor products.

Industry sources indicate that IBM will soon manufacture disk drives for other vendors. This could be a significant development, because IBM seems to be looking toward more of an open environment, supporting Linux and Windows 2000, in addition to MVS and standard proprietary products.

Like other OEMs, they are getting on the open systems bandwagon, and throwing support behind Linux. There are signs that Linux will, in the future, go from the mainframe down to the desktop. It may be the future bond that holds it all together, bridging the gaps between platforms.

In coming years, the question of platform will really be a question of scale. Platforms will become closer in capabilities, but the scale will vary. Consider this: IBM just sold a supercomputer to the Department of Defense that is a RISC-based system, the RISC 6000/SP. It’s touted as the fourth most powerful computer ever built. Do you call that a "midrange system?" Probably not.

There is little doubt that the convergence of technology will continue to change the roles of hardware, software and the network that carries the data, but to what extent?

And against this backdrop of technological change, customers will continue to put pressure on organizations of all sizes for ready access to the information and processing of transactions. Higher and higher standards for data availability will be the norm, not the exception. For businesses in the future, there can be no excuse for downtime of any kind.

What does this forecasting mean for today’s CIO? IT professionals are already faced with providing rapid deployment and new applications in a very fast time frame, yet with the expected hallmark IS availability, durability and security. Product has to be ready now, but it has to be "solid" in the way the mainframe solutions have had to be traditionally. CIOs will put greater pressure on service and support providers to meet the demands of a raised bar.

Because data is becoming more critical and because it is moving back into a centrally managed function, CIOs will demand higher availability services, such as monitoring of product performance, remote diagnostics of products, remote management of capacity planning, etc. Their real question is: "Who is going to take care of me when I’ve got all these vendors and platforms in house?" Data center professionals will look to service providers who can offer not a vendor, but a partner relationship to manage that availability. They have no other choice.

In a world where the expectation is to get key business functions online in a matter of weeks – rather than a few months, as it was a couple of years ago – the pressure is bound to mount on the service and support mechanism for every organization.

Certainly, these are interesting times in which we live. But, the challenges facing today’s centrally-managed systems can be solved. IT professionals have risen to the occasion before. With a little luck, and some careful evaluation of their changing service requirements, organizations will continue to find new opportunities to thrive in this digital world.

William E. Lanam is Vice President, Operations Support for DecisionOne Corporation (Frazer, Pa.). He has more than 30 years experience in the computer services industry.