Management roundtable: The missing pieces

Analysts discuss the challenges of managing enterprise IT infrastructure.

CW: What key IT infrastructure management challenges or hassles do enterprises face?

Graham Titterington: There are several important areas requiring considerable attention:

- The need to achieve and maintain service levels during rapid service development and changing levels of usage.

- The need to secure data and processes in an open and interconnected network.

- The need to provide adequate storage in the face of rapidly growing demand, largely driven by the emergence of new technologies (such as video streaming) that are very memory-hungry.

- The need to track system configuration when the 'system' is very widespread and is likely to include large numbers of mobile access devices in the near future.

Russell Brewer: One of the biggest problems in IT infrastructure management is the issue of mixed platform environments. Organisations must be able to manage a huge variety of file types with a minimum amount of fuss and inconvenience to the end user. The multiple platforms must also be able to work efficiently with each other, acting as though they were all one cohesive environment. Put simply, single sign-on tools are seen as every enterprise's Nirvana!

Businesses also have to manage mission-critical applications and maintain service levels across shared networks such as the Internet, extranet and other shared environments. The correct infrastructure is vital to providing this access and maintaining service across shared resources and networks.

The drivers of e-business are blurring the lines of distinction between the corporate network and the Internet. Internal systems are becoming more visible and accessible to third parties such as customers, partners and suppliers. As services are extended outside the company, factors such as accuracy and availability of information, security and speed become critical. Not only are these factors important to internal staff, they are critical in maintaining a good relationship with external parties who have access to the network.

As organisations focus on greater convergence between voice, data and video technology, network infrastructure is being continually stretched. The key challenge here is to provide bulletproof systems that will meet all the convergence requirements at speeds that make business sense. It is no longer acceptable to develop infrastructure solutions that are secure but run at speeds that are not viable in today's instant information economy.

CW: What areas are the most problematic?

GT: The future role of wireless communication within IT networks is unclear. Its present use is mainly as a messaging medium, in many cases providing access to e-mail servers. There are many potential uses for 'mobile intranets' that would bring the wireless portable devices into the realm of system clients. If these developments do take off, there are major implications for security, system configuration management, and automated configuration of mobile devices. Infrastructure managers will have to develop new processes to avoid being overwhelmed by the volume of work generated by these developments.

RB: There have been instances when I have visited a site and analysed the network only to discover servers that people didn't even know existed. One of the key challenges surrounding infrastructure management is knowing exactly what the network looks like, where the servers are located and what is their exact functionality.

In certain situations, servers may be introduced into the networked environment, and users develop small applications without the IT manager's knowledge. Over time, these applications can become of significant importance to the business, but no one is monitoring the system, or backing it up properly. Vendors are developing solutions to help control networks that are growing at a rapid pace, which has become a major issue for many large enterprises.

Prioritisation of business-critical applications can also be a challenging area. For example, systems that are able to differentiate between business critical HTTP traffic and non-essential generic browsing are often a vital part of effective network management. Having the correct infrastructure to support such prioritisation, without inconveniencing the end user, is the real challenge.

CW: What technologies are available to assist in infrastructure management, particularly with regard to servers, storage systems and networks?

GT: Technologies? Management is about planning, recording, monitoring, and implementation. The only new thing about management is the issue of how to make these things work, across sites, across enterprises, across firewalls, and on the scale required. As a result of these issues of visibility, monitoring requires a mixture of passive observation of processes that are executing normally, and active monitoring through the generation of synthetic transactions to check that they have the desired effect. For example, active monitoring can check that a remote server is still functioning.

RB: Intelligent packet-shaping devices that enable companies to prioritise traffic are crucial in the move towards convergence and increasing infrastructure demands.

Remote monitoring probes, sniffers that include voice over IP (VoIP) and wireless support, and simple network management tools are all essential for the corporate management tool kit.

As we move into the total networked environment where barriers are constantly being broken down, there is a great need to centralise control. New technologies are emerging that allow managers to tune and redefine their networks. These allow movement towards a more stable and efficient environment, simultaneously flexible enough to change at a moment's notice.

This software is also fundamental in halting the ad hoc 'tinkering' that often occurs without an IT manager's prior knowledge. Technology that allows centralised control without discouraging or alienating end users is a key development in the enterprise infrastructure industry.

CW: How would you rate their adequacy?

GT: Individual tools and processes are in place and are generally well understood. Their integration to form a coherent view of system management is still lacking. Thus it is difficult to visualise what an action designed to address a specific need in the infrastructure space will have on the other aspects of the problem. For example, what effect will replicating storage on geographically separated storage networks to enhance business continuity have on performance of applications?

RB: Enterprise systems management can deliver enterprise functionality, but usually needs to be supplemented by best of breed products. Best of breed products are often tied to one specific product alone, for example routers and firewalls will only talk to other products that are made by that same vendor.

As enterprises move into an era where up-time is of paramount importance, it is clear that tools must be Web-enabled and adapt to the nature of the constantly changing online environment. Without Web-enabled capabilities, they are simply not adequate.

CW: What do you see as the key benefits of system management/monitoring systems/applications (eg with regard to personnel resources and system uptime)?

GT: System management is at the core of maintaining productivity in an IT based organisation. It helps to maintain system availability and system throughput. Monitoring gives early indication of the failure of system nodes, and helps to provide the diagnostic information needed to solve long-term performance issues caused by business growth, for example. System management doesn't achieve anything by itself, but it is an essential enabling layer to the efficient operation of corporate systems.

RB: Today's enterprise infrastructure must be instantly adaptable, providing 24x7 connectivity, no matter what. There is a huge demand for bulletproof systems that are constantly operational, robust and secure, especially with the increase in demand for VoIP and video streaming capabilities.

With the correct infrastructure in place, organisations have the capacity to identify and fix faults instantly through intelligent and 'self-healing' technology, providing exceptional levels of up-time, security and quality of service.

More importantly, if businesses want to empower workers with increased bandwidth, constant network access and emerging technologies, it is critical that they have the correct infrastructure in place to support that demand and provide the level of service required.

The key benefit of a solid and robust infrastructure is the ability to set standards that are centrally enforced, in an environment that is centrally managed for end users that want some degree of control over their own technology requirements.

CW: What are the most interesting or most useful technology developments in IT infrastructure manageability?

GT: The most dramatic advances over the next two or three years will be in the storage network area. The exploding demand for storage, the battle between competing technologies (led by the storage area networks and network attached storage approaches), the need to integrate storage with backup, recovery and business continuity initiatives, and the need to secure data when held by a service provider offering shared facilities will lead to major management challenges.

Other major challenges will come from the management of wireless networks. The issues are largely concerned with scalability and the need to provide reliable and fast auto configuration of devices to maintain management efficiency, user satisfaction and productivity.

RB: Mobile applications and wireless alert and monitoring tools are some of the most interesting developments. Voice activation, unified messaging and other wireless applications will become a viable business reality with the advent of 3G mobility. All those aspects that are not currently available to enterprises offering wireless applications will become a reality with the development of 3G networks.

Content delivery networking and outsourced, hosted-management and monitoring services are also interesting developments.

CW: Do you have any other key points?

GT: The rapid increase in the diversity and needs of system management, combined with the accessibility to IT networks connected to the Internet, has led to the growth of a new managed services sector. Any task can be outsourced to such a company: storage provision and/or management, availability and performance monitoring, security, and facilities management. Each organisation has to decide which is the most appropriate means of delivering each of the aspects of its management needs. The decision has to be based on the size and nature of its business, and on its internal resources and skills. Its financial situation and its view about whether its IT systems are core business assets will also affect its decision. In the future we are going to see the services sector focusing far more on integrating the service offerings, perhaps through the emergence of a new category of managed service providers that will be responsible for integrating the various managed services and even bespoke development of the missing pieces.

RB: The most important question that enterprises must ask when considering infrastructure implementation is: in what direction is their technology taking them? More importantly, in which direction should their technology be heading to meet the needs of their customers, and the demand for integration?

They then have a solid basis on which to consider what this means to their infrastructure, and how to provide the best quality of service and return on investment for the company.

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