CIO Perspective: Be Careful with These Bad Technology Decisions

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As the CIO, you are building the technological roadmap of your company for the coming years. There are some decisions that are likely to have serious consequences in the future, which you need to look out today. Here are some suggestions on avoiding them.

Let’s start with the users. 2 years ago, I was discussing that IT departments are undergoing a transformation with the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement. Now the transition is already over and the users are using theirw own devices. IT is no longer in the position to dictate the user the underperforming equipment and inferior services and ask them to “take it or leave it.” The users are just one credit card swipe away from the devices and services they want to use.

This “dictating” approach, if still pursued today, also leads to differentiating IT from the business. It not only brings/augments resentment  for the IT Pros, it also causes the IT to lose focus on what it is doing: IT departments are there for the business, they are not in a versus position with the business. When the IT department has lost its position and in turn the focus on the business as a whole, it is lost.

In terms of technology, the trend in the late 1990s and 2000s was the monolithic Enterprise Resource Planning applications. You would choose SAP, Oracle or Microsoft and you would get reduced prices, free/discounted training and various other benefits. Today, in mid 2010s, the trend is towards small, integrated, mobile applications that excel in their services. If you do not evaluate the alternatives and make informed decisions, you can easily end up with an unsupported, inflexible infrastructure that is prohibitively expensive to maintain.

Such an infrastructure is very likely bring custom integration requirements in the future. It is normal that we cannot predict the future accurately but investing in an infrastructure that is desktop only with no social and mobile roadmap in today’s environment is simply taking huge risks, if not calling for trouble.

The vendor relations are another point. There are companies that try to suck every drop from their vendors in the business. However they fail to understand that such attitude puts the vendor in a stronger position. When you make a bad decision or have a failure, the vendor is motivated to charge you with high prices – be it support or licensing – which may not be covered with your contract. If you push your vendor even further and force him to the point of quitting, then you are in even worse position: you lost the know-how the vendor has built over time, and you are undertaking a really painful separation process. And yet, it is no guarantee that you will find a better vendor. I must admit that I had such clients who did not see the picture despite all my efforts.

The pressure on the IT departments to do more with less, especially in budget terms forces CIOs  to evaluate alternatives primarily from the cost metric. It is perfectly normal, but when the evaluation is only from the cost perspective, then the alarm bells have to ring. It is only commodity products that are evaluated based on price only. If the IT does not consider its strategic position and the long term business objectives, it can easily be seen as a commodity service.

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Unfortunately the story does not end here. When IT is lost, it is seen but unheard. A dictating attitude, differentiating itself from the others, making bad technology decisions, positioning itself as a commodity puts IT departments in the “computer repair shop” position instead of the “strategic business unit” position. It really ends with IT being the operational department, where other people agree on the course of action and the IT pros are left just to implement it. Even more, I have seen many IT departments closed and outsourced when people no longer could tolerate them.

What are the bad decisions that you have seen so far? We would love to hear you in the comments.

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Be Careful Of Selecting Your Storage: Where the Vendors “Hush”

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The amount of data generated by the homo sapiens is growing exponentially and so is the appetite to store them. And this appetite is the playing ground of the storage vendors. The marketing and sales departments of the vendors know this very well and they really act accordingly. That means, they know when to talk and when to hush. Here are the tricks you need to know.

Storage products are considered with a three to five year usage span. After that period, the electricity and the maintenance costs come on par with the new storage acquisition cost. During this time frame you are betting some or all of your valuable data on the storage you are purchasing. The top three decision points are: quality, upgrades and scalability.

Quality is a very generic term. It is obvious that your IT budget is tight and most probably you may not get the best storage in the market. However there should be some quality points which you should not forsake. First, be extremely careful of a storage that uses consumer grade hardware no matter what the vendor tells you. The differences between the consumer and the enterprise grade components are huge, such as the quality of the components and the tests carried out. One of the net results of the differences is the annual failing rate. And guess which one has higher failing rates. The low cost of acquisition may be appealing but the operational costs and the risks may easily exceed the savings that you are making with the purchase.

Next comes the upgrades. Think very carefully of what the storage vendor is offering in upgrades. Are they costly? Do they require too much downtime? Are they complex? Does the storage support background migration? What about firmware updates? These are the questions that you will face after purchasing the storage. Don’t even think about not making firmware updates, you will not be able to receive support and you will be asked to update before going on with the support case. And what if the storage vendor requires firmware updates to be carried out with its partner? Of course, don’t forget to ask about the live migration options.

Ask your vendor about the scale-out and scale-up possibilities: Your business requirements may ask you to add another storage to your infrastructure or grow on your existing infrastructure. To what point will you be able to expand your storage – how many enclosures, how many disks? Similarly, you may want to introduce another storage to ensure high availability at the hardware side. Or maybe you want to create one large storage pool by adding all of your existing storages. Ask if the storage supports these scenarios, and under which circumstances.

In today’s private clouds and highly-virtualized data centers, I have seen many companies having difficulties in managing their fabric. Often this is neither the companies nor the software vendor’s fault. I have seen one successful implementation of System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), together with Operations and Configurations Manager applications. The company wanted to introduce its brand-new acquired storages to the VMM. The two products were listed as compatible storage arrays in VMM’s. The company asked for support from the vendors, resulting in failure. Neither the vendors, the partners nor the consultants knew about this support, let alone how to implement it. When you are selecting your storage, ask if it is compatible with the infrastructure management application you are using – VMM, OpenStack, whatever it is.

Vendors will tell you that the flash storage is on the rise and it is the future of storage and you have to invest today. This is partially true. Flash is the future of storage for many devices but today in the enterprise it is not suitable for all the jobs. Consider jobs which require large sequential data operations – such as multimedia files – where traditional disks excel. You also have to consider your overall storage infrastructure and if it can support the throughput of the flash disks. Does your backplane, your controllers, your software support the speeds? If not you will have bottlenecks. And if you are unlucky, you may have buffering issues. Today, the correct solution is tiered storages, where you have flash disks and traditional spinning disks.

Storages are also affected from the software defined networking: the industry is shifting to software defined storages (SDS). With SDS, many of the functionalities that came with the storage itself is shifted to the hypervisors, operating systems and applications. Now the vendors are trying to lock the customers to proprietary solutions that only work in one platform; this is exactly taking the customer’s freedom and locking him to certain features. I advise you to be careful with this trap: go with open standards to keep your bargaining power and to focus on performance and reliability.

Unfortunately today, enterprise storage market is shaped by the trends. Vendors try to take advantage of these trends with their matching products. On the other side, the enterprises need security and reliability. Sadly, vendors’ salespeople are trying to match their goals and they are using the trends and the flashy “success stories” to achieve their targets. Enterprises need salespeople who are straightforward and “fuss-free” to assist them in selecting the most suitable platform. Again unfortunately, this type of salespeople are one of the endangered species in business.

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CIO Perspective: Be Careful With These Traps

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I personally believe that CIO’s position in the company is more difficult than any other CxOs. There are many things that can go wrong, some implementations may be unaccepted enterprise-wide and sudden shifts in IT can change the direction of many things in a couple of months.  Since many CIOs come from the IT background, they have the tendency to roll up the sleeves to make everything “right” according to the “best practices.” Before doing that, let’s see some traps that are on the way.

First, the CIOs have a natural tendency to engage in the finest details of technology (because how things work itch their instinctive curiosity). But the role of the job requires the CIO to engage with the technology in a strategic level. The finer details are for the staff. CIO is not there to implement VDI on the new Windows Server release, he is there to decide whether VDI is a right way for the business or not.

Another similar trap for the CIO is “returning to the field” and being too controlling. Some CIOs want to “return to the field” to the point of micromanaging their managers rather than properly monitoring them and giving them the support they need. CIOs need to ensure that  the work is on track, not to step in and do things. Similarly, IT people tend to be a little bit more controlling than many other professions. This trait can work very easily against the CIO, especially if he personally worked on similar projects during his career (which is often the case). The CIO should not fall into the trap of controlling everything in the project. He should rather develop managers who can drive the projects to success and establish sound relationships with the stakeholders (partners, customers, end users, other managers etc.).

Just on the very opposite side, there are the ivory-tower CIOs. They tend to stay in the office and follow status reports of the projects. As long as the paperwork is correct, they think that everything is fine. Believing the status reports blindly is one of the gravest mistakes. CIO has to leave his ivory tower, speak with the managers, the stakeholders and make observations on his own. Just by walking around and having a coffee or lunch will make him uncover many issues in advance before they show up in the status reports.

Many of the ivory-tower CIOs tend to be good with everybody with everything. CIOs are expected both to support the projects that are positive for the enterprise and the staff and pull the plug when opposite happens. There are times when there are needs to reshuffle staff, reshuffle/stop/cancel/postpone projects and fire people. Sometimes this is the responsibility of a manager to do this but sometimes the responsibility falls on the CIO. The CIO has to show when he should be taking the lead. Avoiding such “unpleasant” works and leaving  them to someone else to take the blame seriously undermines people’s faith in the CIO.

Some CIOs are so back-end oriented that they miss the point on the end user experience. As a support engineer, I cannot say that the technical elements, the applications and the infrastructure is less important: of course there are the databases, operating systems, networks, performance issues and so on going in the datacenter. Excelling on all these tech elements does not guarantee the success of the application. If the end-user experience is not properly thought of, the CIO has to expect an enterprise-wide resistance on the product. In order to overcome the situation, the CIO has to think about the end user experience from the beginning and consider asking his skilled/experienced people to work with the users on the user experience design.

Taking one step forward, excellence on the technical elements and the user interface still does not say anything about the quality of the application. Failing the take into account the quality assurance (QA) in the project timeline can have serious repercussions. The QA should be structured through the project steps and should cover unit testing, stress testing, integration testing, end user testing and regression testing at the minimum. The QA should also be carried out by the key employees in the departments on scenarios. Allocating proper time in the QA procedures ensures that the things will work as they should be in the first time.

CIOs, due to the nature of their business, tend to form brand loyalties with the tried and proven vendors known in the business for years. There is no problem in that and I believe the CIO has to be encouraged to work with sound partners. The problem starts when this loyalty turns to blindness and the CIO can no longer evaluate the new solutions/vendors that can introduce real value to the business.

Some CIOs fail to understand the importance of the company politics thinking that having everything working together is the ultimate key to success. Throughout the projects, it is important to work with company politics and influencers, and aim to get their support. IT people depend on the CIO to understand the climate and direct the people to the right targets in order to have them succeed in their projects.

Finally, the CIO should not forget that the people working in his department are all his colleagues, working for the same target, the competitive edge of the enterprise. The CIO has to visit reward and promotion structures and make sure that they are up to date with the current IT requirements. It is not enough anymore just to match SLA and performance. Today, the IT has to be customer-centric. There are people working on training, in the call center, on user experience, on quality assurance, which require having different metrics on performance evaluation. If people feel that their performance is not properly measured and there are no advancement opportunities – for the salary or for the career – then they will either leave or choose to jump to other high-reward areas. CIOs job is to keep his valuable colleagues in the enterprise.

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Planning Virtual Desktop Infrastructure? Be Careful With These Mistakes

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Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a virtualization service, which hosts your user desktop environments (user states) and applications on the remote servers. This enables the IT administrators to deliver consistent, personalized and secure desktop environments to users while enabling them to access their desktop environments regardless of their location. Most broadly, it is as if taking a user’s desktop – including applications, data, profile, everything – and putting it on a server, and telling the user that he can reach it from any device that supports VDI standards. For a detailed look, you can check Yung Chou’s excellent post on TechNet blogs.

VDI offers tangible returns in the medium to long run if planned and executed correctly. Having worked for 8+ years in a VDI environment, both as a user, administrator and consultant, I have seen that there are certain same mistakes repeated over and over in every company. Those mistakes not only lower the return on investment (ROI) but also leads to poor user experience.

The first mistake is planning for VDI for today’s requirements. When you have about 30 users working on the same server, there will be high resource uses. The users will highly consume CPU, memory, disk read/writes (I/Os) and network bandwidth. Make sure that you start small on the VDI implementation, measure before and after resource use, determine average resource use per user and plan accordingly. When measuring resources, do not forget to include various scenarios, from running an Excel macro to visiting a Java/Flash/Silverlight intensive web site, from running multiple applications concurrently to draw reports from ERP applications.

Next, be sure to use existing resources whenever possible. Evaluate your existing servers carefully. They may not be suitable for running a couple of users in a VDI setup but  they may as well be powerful as a Remote Application delivery. The same goes with your existing desktops. Your consultant may be telling you to purchase shiny new thin clients but that simply may not be the case. You can simply install a Windows Thin PC, lightweight Linux distribution or any other open source/free application to repurpose your dying PCs as thin clients. You can use your new desktops to run other workloads or use them in branch offices where you don’t have VDI implementation.

When these are in place, make sure that your administrators are well trained. VDI is not simply virtualizing a user’s desktop on the server with an image/restore. VDI is a detailed solution with user profiles (settings that define their wallpaper, resolution, location of the icons on the desktop, application preferences and the line) and/or folder redirection. A good understanding of both these concepts and their implementation scenarios are crucial for the administrators. In addition to these, administrators also need to know about VDI load balancing, VPN and mobile device access and desktop support at the very least. On the other side, the users need to know what to expect. Folder redirection can be a lot of headache if the users are left unsupervised by saving their personal data (music, videos, non-work related images) on the server. They have to be told that non-company data is strictly forbidden. They have to know how and with which credentials they can access their corporate desktops. Training for both the administrators and the users is essential.

Administrators also need to know how VDI works with various applications, such as collaboration, financial applications and in-house developed applications, if any. At this point, I recommend setting up a feedback mechanism – SharePoint, Google or a simple wiki – where users can log their experiences – what works and what not, performance and any other problems.

Then comes the importance of the redundancy. You cannot put all your eggs in one basket and let the business halt when there is an outage. There will be an outage and you have to be prepared for it. Make sure that you have pen and paper and you draw your entire VDI implementation. There you will be able to see what you have to do when a particular item fails – a switch, a server, a connection, whatever the name it is. According to my experience, VDI works best with Bladecenter – Storage implementations, where servers are clustered and virtualized. This way, hardware and software outages are eliminated altogether at once. Do not worry if that solution is too expensive for you, you can create clusters with any servers, for any resources with the current operating systems.

Security is another issue to consider. You cannot simply install software on a server and think everything is over. Or do not feel that disabling a user’s access to his desktop with a few clicks is all it takes to lock a user out. The same principles that apply to your data center and your servers also apply to your virtual infrastructure. This is the first point. The second point is to choose, implement and monitor your antimalware application. The third point is the problems that are introduced with the ubiquitous access that comes with the smartphones, tablets atc.. Make sure that you cover these scenarios with your implementation as well.

Last pitfall is the immediate cost savings. You will not benefit from immediate cost savings. Nor you will have a shiny income statement at the end of the quarter. VDI implementation is a medium to long-term investment. As you phase out desktops with thin clients, you will see lower replacement and maintenance costs, as well as lost time waiting for repair/replacement of the equipment. Next, you will see reduction in administrative efforts; since VDI is managed by a central policy, you will not have desktop support staff running around fixing end-user issues. You will have a predictable, standard, controlled, yet customized and a flexible working environment (Windows 2008 R2 SP1 VDI works very well over a 1 Mbit ADSL connection). You will be able to better utilize your IT staff – developing them and employing in business scenarios. Don’t bet on the immediate savings.

This is not an exhaustive listing of the traps, pitfalls and mistakes you will encounter down your VDI road. As goes with every project, plan, document, make mistakes, learn from them, document the outcomes and carry on. Hopefully, after you succeed in implementing VDI, you will wonder how you were living without it.

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