Stephen J. Bigelow, Senior Technology Editor
IT professionals are used to change – the reality of change is as old as IT itself. Everyone swaps servers during technology refresh cycles, and new versions of operating systems or key business applications can have IT staff working overtime to get users updated.
Still, change is always a challenge for IT. And while the logistical and technical demands of change will always stress budgets, tax patience, and fray nerves, the IT department soldiers on to solve problems and fight fires and support the business.
But what happens when a technology fundamentally changes the way a business or industry operates?
Just consider an emerging technology like 3D printing where solid objects are created by depositing materials in successive layers according to a digital model. The resulting 3D model can be used as the basis for molds and other core manufacturing processes – even using materials that are correct for the finished product, allowing a manufacturer to actually fabricate finished goods on demand.
The very notion that a company can produce products on-demand flies in the face of traditional business paradigms.
Consider the manufacturing process itself. Traditional manufacturing is based on economies of scale using mass-production of identical items. This involves further practices including logistics, warehousing, sales – the entire business infrastructure which relies on IT resources and support. When small numbers of products can be inexpensively fabricated on demand using an easily manipulated digital model, the business is profoundly affected; and so are the services and support that IT must provide.
There are implications for IT. Designs would proliferate as the number of models multiplies from designers and customers, requiring data storage and security. The concepts of enterprise resource planning (ERP) would change dramatically because the flow of materials into and out of the business would be radically different. Warehousing for work-in-progress and finished goods would be virtually eliminated. Goods could also be built on-site or at remote locations, greatly reducing transportation demands. Our very definition of manufacturing could change. Just imagine an automotive shop that can fabricate certain parts right on the shop floor, or a military unit that can produce key spare parts in the field.
Of course, such fabrication technology is far from perfect; today. But it’s an example of the way that new technologies and their refinement can re-define concepts and practices that are (in the case of mass-production) centuries-old. It’s a wakeup call that IT professionals must look ahead at the changing needs of business and position staff and systems to handle the types of changes that may appear on the horizon – or risk being discarded as obsolete.]]>
But data centers mature and grow over time. It’s not enough for IT managers to deploy Web and email servers, check for alerts and sip their afternoon coffee. Every data center must “mature” to some extent so that it becomes a business partner or collaborator rather than just a cost center.
The problem is that the path to data center maturity is clouded by technologies, strategies and initiatives that wind up getting in the way of everyday things that data centers and IT staff do well. As businesses refocus their attention on things like enterprise architecture, business intelligence and project management, there is a disturbing tendency for the business (and IT) to lose focus on the underlying infrastructure and operational aspects that got IT a seat at the executive table in the first place.
The result is that IT maturity unexpectedly sputters and stops–-usually at a point just before it emerges as a real differentiator for the business. Consider the high-end systems management framework that takes 12 months to configure before it’s able to provide any useful insight, only to be obsolete and worthless three months later because it costs too much and takes too long for the IT team to keep the framework updated. Or, the new enterprise architecture project that bogs down or stalls because the necessary infrastructure documentation is lacking. Sound familiar?
Yes, every tie-wearing, desk-wielding CIO longs to reach the mountaintop–the day when their IT department can become some sort of mystical “transformational force” in the business. And yes, this type of lofty goal will demand a substantial level of IT maturity (and a substantial financial investment to match). But it’s unwise for any business to pursue maturity path strictly for its own sake. It’s more important for IT to provide value within the roles that business wants and needs–and stay focused on the basics that will facilitate future growth when a meaningful opportunity to mature finally arrives.]]>
Vendors tout tools like systems management and automation as vehicles to handle this burden, and it’s the right end game. But, unfortunately, it’s not enough by itself. Systems management, automation and other IT tools are just too complicated. Just consider how long it took your organization to select, deploy, configure and use that last software investment productively. It’s not uncommon for a software framework to take six to 12 months before an organization can use it productively. And even then, inevitable changes and reconfiguration (even patches and updates) can prove disruptive, leaving the IT organization vulnerable.
There are many innovations on the horizon for IT, but few innovations hold the promise of “people-centric software design.” IT management software designers need to take a page from other aspects of the mobile intelligent application industry and focus their efforts on context-sensitive computing. I’m not talking about a fancy new user interface. I mean software designers must rethink the way that they approach design and create a new generation of management tools with the high-level intelligence that can multiply an IT administrator’s efficiency.
We see this in the future of commercial applications. Take a picture of a gadget on a store shelf with your mobile phone, and quickly see the specs and reviews for that device, and then (based on your inquiries) receive coupons or links to other devices. There are countless other examples where application designers are developing software that makes decisions based on factors, like location, user activity patterns or search habits, and even gathers information from social media sources.
Consider an administrator responsible for 1,000 servers across three data centers. A new reporting application might look at the administrator’s location and present status information on the systems in the closest or current facility. That administrator might run performance analyses much of the time, so the new app might also present performance data on those local servers, identifying poor performers and suggesting potential fixes without being asked. Quick links to server manufacturers’ forums or social media outlets might then allow the administrator to share concerns or ask questions of the user community.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that IT administrators start managing their global server farm through Facebook. But, IT administrators must manage a spiraling amount of infrastructure using a greater diversity of devices. Software makers absolutely must re-imagine their IT management products in order to simplify it, make it smarter and allow busier administrators to handle more information using a greater array of mobile and tablet devices.]]>
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve watched vendors–often large, world-class vendors–tout their wares as a universal solution to every business problem. “Just sign here,” they say with a smile. “Our new widget will make all your problems go away. We promise.” And IT, often overworked, understaffed, and fending off pressure from the C level, foregoes some portion of due diligence, assuaged by vendor claims of interoperability and support.
And after that sparkling new product is deployed, you find that it doesn’t work the way that the vendor claims, at least, not in your environment and not without additional capital-intensive upgrades. Assuming that you manage to discuss the matter with vendor support, the onus usually winds up on you to identify the root cause. Wasted time, wasted money, frustration…sound familiar?
The reality is that the business role of IT is more important than ever, but most IT departments no longer have the staff or funding to wrestle with vendors. IT departments also cannot deal with vendors’ deployment catastrophes after the fact. IT and C-level executives simply cannot afford to risk the server farm on a vendor’s promises.
There are two crucial messages here.
First, (pay attention all you C-levels out there) IT is not about “firefighting.” The true value of IT is in its ability to identify, integrate and manage technologies that allow your business to function and generate revenue. So for the love of God, step off and let IT do its job. IT is always busy, and it may take time to evaluate the best solutions for your business problems, but IT can find the best solutions for you if you support them in that goal. Bring IT into those executive planning meetings and solicit IT feedback and input on new company initiatives. Edicts from the top almost never translate well into a data center. C-level executives that play golf with a vendor and push their new widget on IT the next day are undermining IT efforts–and jeopardizing the entire business.
Second, IT administrators will also need to show more backbone. Folding under pressure to purchase products is a guarantee of sleepless nights and long weekends, usually spent listening to Musak versions of “Muskrat Love” and waiting on hold for vendor support. Push back on vendors and talk business objectively with your own executives. Get those new products on extended loan and tackle the due diligence testing in lab and limited production environments. Compare similar products, see what works and what doesn’t, and put those vendors on the spot. Make the time up front–you won’t regret it.
Avoid the path of least resistance. It’s the only way that IT and the business will be successful.]]>
If you think RISC servers are taking a back seat to specialized mainframe transaction processors and inexpensive, general-purpose x86 processors, think again.
RISC microprocessors specialize in handling a limited and specific set of instructions and have fewer transistors, making them cheaper to use, more energy efficient and an ideal option for faster performance. The chips are most widely deployed in printers, mobile phones, video game consoles, hard drives and routers, but data centers are now paying greater attention to servers stuffed with Tilera, Intel Atom or other RISC-type processors.
Mobile devices, specialized apps drive demand
ARM Ltd, a major leader in the RISC chip market, “reported that 10 billion licensed RISC chips had been shipped as of early 2008 … and through various generations, variants and implementations of the ARM core processor, you’ll see that these chips are deployed in over 90% of mobile devices,” said Bill Kleyman, virtualization architect with MTM Technologies Inc., based in Stamford, Conn.
Christopher Steffen, principal technical architect at Kroll Factual Data, located in Loveland, Colo., sees RISC servers having the most value in any kind of application that is used to do heavy mathematical modeling and computation. These applications, in particular, require high-compute cycles. A few examples of RISC-based servers appear from SeaMicro and Calxeda.
“RISC-based servers allow companies to obtain the same number of compute cycles (if not more) at a much lower price,” Steffen said.
Kleyman reported that he also saw many users with Archos Tablets and Windows mobile devices, which all have ARM chips based on the RISC architecture. “Operations load quickly, and mobile computing is a core component in the warehouse environment,” he added.
Presence of RISC in data centers
The use of RISC chips in mobile and handheld devices will ensure the architecture will become more prominent in data centers, as administrators and IT staff employ them for everyday work tasks.
“More mobile devices, such as Windows mobile and iPad 2, are being used in everyday maintenance of core system components. Receiving alerts, troubleshooting errors and locating gear is made easier with some of these mobile computing devices,” Kleyman said.
Steffen noted that many applications (and most companies) that are utilizing RISC-based servers have been doing so for decades, using supercomputers or mainframes (with SPARC processors, for example) to crunch their data.
“While some feel that this technology is going away, IBM continues to develop PowerPC microprocessor cores for use in their ASIC offerings, and many high-volume applications embed PowerPC cores … Recent versions of [HP-UX] support the HP 9000 series of computer systems, which is based on the PA-RISC processor architecture,” Kleyman said.
“RISC servers will become more popular when businesses realize they can gain the compute cycles that they are now outsourcing to large mainframes and supercomputers for significantly reduced costs,” Steffen added.
Making the case for RISC servers
Although reduced power and improved performance are obvious benefits of RISC technology, it’s important to have a solid business case before adopting RISC servers in a data center. In many situations, a conventional x86-based server with virtualization can handle multiple business workloads in a highly cost-effective manner. X86 servers are also extremely easy to source from a wealth of different vendors. Some RISC-based processors may also demand changes to software and infrastructure.
But consider the potential benefits. For example, SeaMicro claims their SM10000-64HD high-density, low-power server uses 768 Intel Atom processor cores to effectively replace 60 1U dual-socket, quad-core servers. This might not sound appealing at first glance, but the SeaMicro server also includes Ethernet switching, server management, fault tolerance and load balancing in the same 10U box, using only 25% of the power. In addition, the unit runs off-the-shelf operating systems and applications, preserving existing investments in enterprise software.
Cost and ROI considerations aside, careful testing and proof-of-concept deployments will be needed to ensure that RISC platforms provide the necessary compatibility and performance needed for your specific environment.
Stephen Bigelow, senior technology editor, contributed to this report.