Go digital or die; but who has the skills to deliver the infrastructure?

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We are all aware of the changing face of Britain’s high streets due to the rise in online shopping, but it is not just traditional high-street retailers that are under threat from the digital revolution. Taxi operators, estate agents, energy providers and financial services firms are just some in a long list of organisations currently working out how to fend off competition from younger, more nimble and aggressive digital operators. 

Nor is the problem confined to customer-facing organisations. Operational inefficiencies, complex supply chains, and increasing regulation all affect the smooth-running operations of public and private organisations alike. Those without the both the digital strategies and the technology capabilities in place to adapt to this monumental change, risk being left behind.

‘Go digital or die’ may not sound like much of a choice, but, for a growing number of enterprises, it has become a business reality. Indeed, whole industries have disappeared in the face of digital disrupters. Yet, going digital offers much more than just financial survival. It is a launchpad for growth, be it via the delivery of innovative new services, streamlined operational processes, or the agility to flex as markets emerge, expand and contract.

Digital transformation is probably the most overused buzz phrase of the moment, but beneath the hype there is the growing urgency within organisations across all sectors to embrace this new reality.

Leadership is crucial to success

Transformation programmes are, first and foremost, an issue for business leaders. All too often, organisations conflate digital transformation with straightforward technology refreshes. While it is undeniably important – or even critical – technology is just part of the solution. Real digital transformation requires transformation of culture, people and processes, so to have any chance of success, programmes must be led from the very top, with business leaders being the true champions of change. Their 360-degree insight into new business models, training programmes, partnerships and technology projects is vital to drive truly transformative change.

The role software-defined infrastructures play in digital transformation

That said, any digital transformation programme will have technology transformation at its heart. Technology makes it possible to deliver new applications to more customers and users, process more data and meet heightened expectations around the user experience. For many organisations, however, digital ambitions are hindered by legacy infrastructures that are not fit for purpose.

Traditional infrastructures – where even the simplest reconfiguration can often require several teams to make multiple changes across the network – are out of step with today’s business requirements for agility, efficiency and immediacy.  In contrast, software-defined (SD) technologies go a long way to making organisations’ IT infrastructures more dynamic, responsive and efficient. They are fast becoming are a critical component of any digital transformation project.

SD technologies abstract the control of infrastructure devices from the physical data plane. In doing so, all management and operations functions of multiple devices across the entire organisation can be consolidated on a single dashboard.

Fewer touchpoints means greater resilience, while the ease at which new services and departments can be turned up (or turned down), make these infrastructures highly scalable and nimble, and a key driver for overall business growth. The transformational benefits of these infrastructures are far reaching, enabling automation, standardisation, deeper intelligence and policy-based control.

The benefits of automation

With SD infrastructures it is possible to add new capabilities without making wholesale changes at a manual level, bringing considerable efficiency gains. Rather than the configuring every device when deploying a new service, automation enables every device across the service chain - whether they be switches, ports, virtual machines, or storage arrays - to be configured with a single click so organisation can spin up new services quickly and seamlessly.

Standardised, repeatable processes

Organisations are faced with ever growing device proliferation, and the resulting complexity of managing different configurations. The centralised orchestration provided by SD infrastructures makes it simple to create standards models and templates for devices, which can be quickly deployed across the whole organisation, simplifying the network and reducing the cost of operations.

Increased intelligence

With SD infrastructures, assessment – in order to ensure everything is working optimally and is correctly configured – occurs on a continual basis. Plus, by bringing previously siloed technologies onto a single infrastructure, it is possible to understand all the various, often complex, technical interdependencies. This added intelligence provides better visibility into how the infrastructure is performing and importantly, SD’s machine learning capabilities helps teams proactively identify future issues before they can impact business operations.  

Policy-based delivery

Over these infrastructures, it is possible to set and enforce a single policy via the central controller. These policies dictate how workloads and services are pushed out across the entire IT estate, without the need for multiple layers of administration.  These standardised processes make it easy to roll-out new services and activate new employees or teams, all with specified, pre-defined compute, storage and infrastructure requirements. As a result, collaboration between teams becomes much easier and IT management overheads are greatly reduced.

What’s the catch?

Organisations increasingly understand the vital role software-defined technology plays in transforming business operations but a fundamental challenge remains; skills. 

Digital infrastructure programmes require IT teams to completely re-think how they operate, as well as introduce entirely new ways of working. Instead of siloed teams, each with specialist skill-sets centred on individual applications or storage/network infrastructures they must join forces and work as a single entity.

It falls to IT leaders to empower these teams and inspire them to work together to create a nimble, agile infrastructure than underpins positive change and business growth. Change is never easy, but in this instance, it’s vital.

When it comes to accessing the skills that are required to make the transformation to a SD infrastructure there is no doubt that there is a shortage of available, experienced and trained IT professionals. Indeed, research firm Cartesian found that 80 per cent of network engineers believed greater investment was needed to train staff on software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) technologies, two of the better understood SD technologies. Without adequately trained engineers to install, configure and then manage these and more cutting-edge SD deployments the benefits will remain beyond the reach of companies.

The challenge is that the pace of innovation in IT in recent years has made continual training a necessity in order to retain staff and gain the full benefits of new technologies. In today’s era of ‘do more for less’ it is not easy to find the time or the money for the level of organisational investment needed. 

Accessing the right skills is a critical requirement for organisations looking to undergo a digital transformation and, anticipating this, some IT vendors and their partners are investing heavily in programmes to support or outsource the management of these services. This is an essential step that makes it possible for organisations to reap the benefits of transitioning to SD environments without the barriers to entry.

Phil Lees, CTO and co-founder, WhiteSpider
Image Credit: Konica Minolta Business Solutions UK