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Hey IT! Get with the Program: Make Operations a Strategic Weapon

Don’t start your battle without preparation

Too often, Information Technology leadership lives in its own world, far removed from business decision-making. This can result in IT being an easy target for blame. If everything goes well, IT is a high-spend cost center. If things go poorly, then IT isn't doing its job. Non-strategic IT departments are too often seen as the bad guys-They are an obstacle, a process-loving bureaucratic group that slows everything down...Other departments must find a way around IT in order to launch those pet projects quickly. Now you, the CIO, are caught in a downward spiral, spending more time fighting political battles, less time addressing your organization's immediate tech needs and zero time planning for the future. The IT Ops team is in a constant scramble to keep up, overburdened with administrivia and maintaining uptime. In this bleak picture, IT isn't exactly a potent weapon in the battle for innovation.

The solution? Get proactive!
Today's CIO must intrinsically understand the ins and outs of business strategy, and he or she must be fundamentally involved in crafting business strategy. The CIO is the IT org's commanding general, and if the general's not on the battlefield, the battle won't be won. Get aware of upcoming initiatives and anticipate how IT can impact them. Start by prioritizing strategies:

  1. Innovation: What new organizational capabilities can IT enable and drive?
  2. Velocity: How quickly can a new technology project be executed?
  3. Cost/ROI: How much is a project going to cost and how much is it going to save?
  4. Governance/Control: Are all organizational and legal requirements being met?

Identified your strategies? Good start. But you need more than just top-of-mind strategies to truly make your IT operation a strategic weapon. It's time to deliver on their promise.

Clear the battlefield...or at least your schedule
First, eliminate what you can so you'll have the capacity to work on what's truly important. Your work may well be controlled by various governance mandates, but if you can offload some core work and free up personnel and hardware resources, do it.

Second, investigate Software as a Service (SaaS) as a way to reduce overhead and maintenance expenses. SaaS can make good business sense for any size project: Email, HR-management systems, project management, content delivery, source code repositories, IT help desk, bug-tracking software, and test case management are all examples of services that could potentially be migrated to a SaaS vendor. Ask four questions when considering SaaS:

  1. Is this function core to my organization's mission? (E.g., Is my company in the business of running an email system, or are we simply required to have an email service?)
  2. Are there governance or regulatory reasons why I can't outsource?
  3. Does a suitable SaaS application exist?
  4. What is the risk to the organization if this application is temporarily unavailable for whatever reason?
  5. What's the ROI, factoring in personnel and hardware resource savings?

Audit usage of the existing services IT offers to the organization, both in terms of how often those services are accessed and your cost of keeping them running.

Third, reevaluate all in-progress projects with their respective business owners. You may be surprised to learn that some projects can be halted completely, others can be scaled back, and some should be revisited (to attack the scourge of outdated requirements).

Get your army in the (private) cloud
Find the resources to create a private cloud infrastructure. Consolidating your servers into a cloud will allow you take maximum advantage of the resources at your disposal. You'll no longer need to worry about provisioning each server independently with its own OS and middleware, or whether any one specific server is being under- or over-utilized. (Several research studies note that enterprises tend to be unaware of under-utilized server capacity, and/or unable to take advantage of it.) Your cloud will help ensure that you always have the required infrastructure available to deploy a new application when required.

And why a private cloud? If your organization must adhere to strict government regulatory data requirements, the private-vs.-public battle may already be decided. A private cloud ensures that you retain complete control over resources and data. As CIO, you are ultimately responsible for your organization's digital assets, and it makes sense to retain as much control over that data as is possible within your own security policies and parameters.

Get started: Repurpose some of your in-house servers into an on-site private cloud. There are a wide variety of private-cloud technologies (both commercial and open source) to choose from, and plenty of easily accessible consultants who can help you. Yes, you'll see upfront expense, but the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term costs. Or, consider a simpler alternative: hosted private cloud.

Arm the troops with a polyglot private PaaS
Once your cloud infrastructure is in place, deploy a polyglot Platform as a Service (PaaS). Think of PaaS as an automated middleware layer that abstracts underlying infrastructure management needs away from your IT management, delivers the middleware layer your applications require, and allows your development team to deploy new applications (or update existing ones) without involving IT.

A so-called "polyglot" PaaS handles multiple languages and frameworks. There are many single-language PaaS solutions, but if your organization develops in more than one language, you'd need to deploy a single-language PaaS platform for each language. That burdensome approach sustains your language silos, and multiplies overhead work. You're better off selecting a polyglot PaaS in the first place—one that accommodates the languages (Java, .NET, Ruby, PHP, Python, Perl, etc.) in which your developers code.

Future-proof your forces and choose an extensible private PaaS. As your resource skillset evolves to support your business growth, you'll need to accommodate new languages and frameworks.

Test locally, deploy globally: A good PaaS will enable production testing on local clients. Developers will know if their apps will run in the corporate cloud because they've already tested them in a simulated production environment.

Good private PaaS auto-scales and auto-configures, and your IT team monitors everything. It facilitates deployment handoffs, and shaves time off deployment process, freeing both devs and IT to focus on strategic innovation instead of paperwork, rework, and finger pointing.

Capture the flag...wisely
Don't start your battle without preparation. As you deploy private PaaS, you must measure, tweak, and improve. But private PaaS on private cloud will make IT agile enough to win your organization's IT battles. You'll spend more time innovating, and less time configuring, managing, and worrying about infrastructure. And that makes IT a potent strategic weapon for your organization.

More Stories By Brent Smithurst

Brent Smithurst is ActiveState's Director of Product Management and he thinks about Stackato 24x7. Prior to joining ActiveState, he held leadership positions in software product management, IT, operations, and marketing for organizations in security/computer management, motion picture/television, food services, and hardware retail/online industries.

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