Growth imperative: technology foundation
Take a look under the hood of the IT function in the average enterprise-scale company today and you will find a complex mix of technologies at work.
Applications, platforms, infrastructure and storage, all sourced and installed at different times and for different reasons. Large companies almost always have to work with a mix of legacy on-premises technologies as well as up to date cloud-hosted systems.
The reason? Companies grow organically and IT infrastructure gets developed and built up over time as the business needs of the company dictate. Which is all well and good, but just because your existing infrastructure has worked well to date, does not mean it is best positioned to take your enterprise into the future.
Ensuring scalability to meet demand has proved challenging for many, with favour vacillating between pure cloud and hosted resources. So how prepared are Irish IT departments to support real enterprise growth?
“The short answer I think is that different customers are at different stages of the journey. And whilst that may sound like a non-answer, the reason I say that is you need to take a step back. When you’re positioning for growth it’s not about on-prem or off-prem, it’s about looking at that hybrid world and setting the systems and platforms up to accommodate that growth,” said Phil Starrett, chief technology officer for Hybrid IT with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) UK and Ireland.
“Within that we look at it from the workload perspective. The workload is driven from the business services that end users want to consume and that in turn will drive the portfolio of workloads. And within HPE what we believe, and what we’re seeing across our customer base, is that there’re people who are going with a very bold statement – we’re going to put everything in the cloud.”
The analogy that Starrett offers is that this situation is similar to one in which a person goes to the seaside, strips down and jumps into the sea, only to find out it is really cold. They quickly get out again and have to rethink ‘how am I going to get in without getting hypothermia?’
“That’s the analogy I use. Looking at the platform of systems, it’s about having elasticity and knowing what you need so you can integrate that into your ecosystem,” he said.
In terms of how well positioned companies are in the real world to facilitate growth, Starrett said it is hard to tell, but he believes there is often a problem when companies look for a ‘silver bullet’ to fix growth-related issues for them.
“Lots of organisations faced with this problem look for something that’s going to be the answer to all of their questions. But the challenge comes when you need to tidy up a legacy estate and make it fit for growth. There are some really good examples of where some of the larger enterprises in financial services and some of the big banks that we work with where they have made great strides in doing this and are recognising the need to be more agile.”
Companies that cannot accommodate some elasticity in their infrastructure – in other words the ability to scale up and down as business needs dictate – risk being left with what Starrett terms ‘technical debt’.
“It’s not just about growth, it’s about the right fit as well. You need to be able to grow when you need to but shrink when you need to as well. If you just continue to grow then you just load yourself with technical debt,” he said.
“This comes from the traditional way of working. In the past organisations have gone out and bought enterprise licence agreements for software where they both have provisions on infrastructure and then they depreciate those assets but don’t really fully utilise them.”
“That way they have assets sitting on their books, whether it’s ‘shelf ware’ from the software point of view, or whether it’s infrastructure. And then they get to cycles of big capital expenditure deployment where they need to refresh that technology because it goes out of date.”
Companies looking specifically for ways to reconcile existing infrastructure with the need to expand should have a clear idea of what they need to do and why. And according to Microsoft’s national technology officer for Ireland, Kieran McCorry, that starts with getting support from the business side of the house for a phased move to cloud or the adoption of a hybrid environment.
“This generally is straightforward, and you can start by looking at costs. The operating costs for cloud-based environments are generally less than those of on-premises environments and cloud-based systems don’t require any capital investment. That’s a huge benefit that appeals straight away and the savings can be used to fund IT development in other areas,” he said.
“Second, start thinking about the approach for transitioning from legacy environments. Look for obvious business systems that can be converted into software-as-a-service offerings. For example, if you’re running your own messaging servers or document repositories, there are obvious alternatives like Office 365, Microsoft Teams, OneDrive, etc, that provide all of that capability much more efficiently.”
Thirdly, McCorry suggested companies look at other business systems that can be migrated to the cloud or complemented with hybrid capability.
“You can identify existing systems and servers that are perhaps nearing end of life and think about recreating these as virtual machines (VM) in the cloud. You can access the latest server architectures running Windows or Linux using the classic infrastructure-as-a-service capability and you can have these systems up and running in a couple of minutes, decommissioning legacy hardware,” said McCorry.
“You can then think about other platforms, database environments etc that you can move onto cloud-based environments — platform-as-a-service — where you’re simply using the platform capability without the need to manage any underlying hardware.”
Next up are cloud-native applications, in other words, serverless computing where a company maintains its business systems as code residing on a cloud platform that executes whenever it is needed.
“The key message is one-step-at-a-time. Get familiar with the benefits of the cloud, starting by going hybrid and moving from physical on-premises systems to virtual ones, and as comfort levels ramp up and the benefits become evident, more sophisticated migrations can be planned,” said McCorry.
This is an approach that is broadly considered desirable in the industry. Ronan Carey, regional sales director for Dell Technologies Ireland, said that his organisation’s preference in this area is that clients adopt a multicloud strategy, rather than a purely on-premises strategy or one of the hyperscaler clouds.
“There’s a recent IDC study said that more than 70% of customers are using multiple cloud environments, in other words at least three or more,” he said.
“That could be your data centre, or it could be a hyperscaler cloud or it could be a specialist cloud. But effectively facilitating growth could be a challenge in any of those areas and the thing about growing organisations is that almost by definition growth can be unpredictable.”
Dell’s suggestion is that multicloud solutions give companies the capabilities to address peaks in demand for customers. That could be bursting from on-premises to using maybe cloud partners, hyperscalers or specialists.
“And for us the key is consistency of infrastructure and operations at every location, wherever the cloud resides. So, it could be on-premise data centres, public cloud or the emerging edge because edge computing is a big thing right now. Effectively it’s about having greater control of that multicloud journey.”
According to Carey, it helps if an organisation has a strong relationship with a small number of vendors.
“Obviously I would say this, but consistency of infrastructure and automation is really helpful. Operating multiple clouds provided by multiple vendors can cause organisations to have to deal with challenges. And oddly it can sometimes stifle innovation if it adds complexity,” he said.
The argument as Dell Technologies sees it, is that a multicloud approach is ideal for offering familiar management interfaces that extend across multiple clouds. It simplifies the overall experience and it simplifies cloud mobility.
“None of these operating models are going to go away – on-premises is going to be really important in some cases for the foreseeable future. A manufacturing organisation for example will typically want its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system close to where its manufacturing is happening,” said Carey.
“An organisation that’s going through a lean, agile development phase of a new application is going to primarily want that in the cloud. There might be cost restrictions for both of those. So effectively it’s about how do we use cloud economics to make sure that effectively our services are living in the correct place?”
This is an approach that Sinead Scully, director for IBM Ireland Enterprise Business agrees with. She suggests that in the early days of the cloud, companies focussed on the low hanging fruit in terms of the benefits that moving part of their infrastructure online could bring. They were not necessarily thinking of the future and how growth might affect them.
“The initial forays to the cloud for most Irish enterprises were focused on the easy things. Moving basic applications to cloud infrastructure to cut costs and building new applications on the cloud to speed innovation,” she said. “But to date, only about 10 to 20% of applications have moved to the cloud. The next 80% of the cloud opportunity focuses on shifting business applications and optimising everything from supply chains to sales transactions.”
To address this opportunity, companies need to be able to move and manage data, services and workflows across multiple clouds. At the same time, many companies are already running cloud installations between different vendors.
“This is challenging for them as it is largely a manual process, with major security implications and inconsistent cloud management and automation services. To get the right mix of public and private infrastructure in a hybrid cloud environment to cope with a company’s growth depends on their enterprise IT requirements,” said Scully.
According to IBM, when it comes to accommodating growth, companies with variable computing needs and traffic demands often do best with a higher proportion of public cloud due to the scalability it offers.
“Start-ups that need to remain agile and quickly respond to fast-changing markets may also benefit from more public cloud resources. Meanwhile, established enterprises in highly regulated industries, such as finance or healthcare may lean more toward private cloud rather than public in order to maintain more control over security. So finding out which model works best for a company’s hybrid system growth requires thought and assessment.”
Important too in this assessment are a company’s IT security needs, business maturity, future computing demands, plus compliance and regulations – nobody wants to be a victim of the next major data breach.
One additional challenge for companies looking to accommodate growth is sourcing the right people to support that shift. At a time when key IT skills are in hot demand, the best way of accessing talent is to grow it internally.
And in the opinion of Jim Gregg, head of professional development for the Irish Computer Society, instituting in-house training programmes and facilitating continuous professional development can also be a way of attracting and retaining staff.
“Any of our members, whether they be individuals or members through a corporate plan, can gain access to a tool called Career Plus that uses an assessment based on the e-competency framework, which is the European standard for assessing IT skills,” he said.
“It marries an assessment of your skills to your ongoing professional development so it allows users to assess themselves against the European Standard and continuously track everything they do that can be considered ongoing development, whether that is attending a training course, workshop or a conference.”
From the organisation’s point of view, it is possible to look at the skills that IT staff have and begin to assess where the gaps are in terms of knowledge. It highlights the abilities of staff that could be built on or encouraged, or that indeed which may have passed unnoticed altogether.
“When it comes to accommodating growth and identifying the skill sets necessary to support that, it may be the case that you have some of the abilities in house already but you just don’t know it because nobody is keeping track of these things,” said Gregg.
“It helps you answer the question of how much can you do in house and how much do you need to go looking for outside the company.”