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Q&A: Why IT infrastructure is critical to digital transformation

We recently sat down with Julian Starr, Head of Systems Engineering UK at Brocade to discuss why companies still haven’t been able to realise the benefits of digital transformation and his view on the future of data-centres and networks.

What are the current business pains when it comes to digital transformation?

Business leaders are embracing digital transformation as a critical factor for success and they expect IT to help them deliver it. But even though they understand the need for digital transformation, many organisations are seriously challenged by the realities of delivering it.

They are missing opportunities to unlock innovation due to legacy technology and historical misperceptions about the role of IT departments. A recent survey we conducted found that 80 per cent of business leaders in the UK believe their organisation is restricted in its ability to support digital transformation. A concerning finding given so many organisations are investing in software and services which aim to kick them into becoming a digital enterprise, when they should instead be focusing resources on upgrading the underlying systems.

Why do you think companies are still having these issues?

After budget and security, the burden of maintaining legacy systems is the biggest reason organisations are still having issues when trying to address digital transformation. Legacy systems, particularly at the data centre and network layer, are ineffective in supporting the modern software many organisations are now choosing to deploy.

Additionally, legacy systems often require both extra budget and time to maintain, taking away IT resource from focusing on a digital transformation process.

What steps should companies be taking to smooth the process to become a digital enterprise? How important is infrastructure within this?

IT infrastructure is critical to a good digital transformation process. It’s the foundation of an organisation’s whole IT system. Those who fail to recognise the importance of network and data centre infrastructure will inevitably be limiting their organisation’s agility and risk spending more than necessary on infrastructure as they try to optimise their IT for digital transformation.

Implementing a digital transformation isn’t simple. In reality, organisations need to be investing in technology at the cutting edge if they want to future-proof their business. Technology such as flash storage or an all-flash data centre, which will transform the response times of the data centre, plus Gen 6 Fibre Channel network technologies, which provides the digital enterprise with non-stop availability and the incredible performance required for tomorrow’s modern data centres, are prime examples.

It’s all about connecting organisations to their most critical applications and data more swiftly and efficiently whilst providing a platform for growth, development, and innovation.

What are the main benefits of an all-flash data centre?

The all-flash data centre is about improving performance and reducing latency across the whole of the data centre, not just one part. It’s a relatively new phenomenon; organisations have only been implementing flash across the data centre in the last five years or so, but it’s already having a huge impact by massively improving the rate at which organisations can access their applications and data.

The difference between having an all-flash data centre and one traditionally based on spinning disks is very much like comparing a sports car to a sedan, they’ll both run well enough to do a job but if you need to get somewhere as fast as possible, the sports car is best for the job.

What do you think the future holds for data centres?

Simply put: time is money. Digital transformation means that more businesses want to process information in real time, which all relies on the data centre. A key driver of data centre direction comes from the convergence of four trends:

  • Real time processing of data
  • Solid state storage innovation
  • The decline of Moore’s Law
  • Infrastructure analytics

These four trends are interlinked and describe a world where faster access to data is an imperative. Real-time data processing is tied to business outcomes and underpinned by consistent and rapid access to data, which is where solid state storage plays its role.

Fast access to data also helps to solve the Moore’s Law issue, since a proportion of processor time is wasted waiting for data from legacy technologies. Lastly, infrastructure analytics gives insight into platform performance allowing greater optimisation.

From this perspective, the future of the data centre lies in the transition from deploying and managing (both of which are increasingly automated) to analysis and optimisation. This requires a shift in focus, skills and tools. Real time processing and data streaming is about performance, but in many cases, organisations are focused on speed of delivery on legacy platforms. Capacity planning is focused on virtualisation and workload density and not on maintaining system performance.

Delivering sustained performance requires skills and tools beyond those that have delivered virtual machine sprawl across an abundance of hardware capacity. A resurgence of capacity planning skills and tools will give rise to continued growth of infrastructure analytics. Vendors will need to assist in this transition by providing better tools and greater insight into the behaviour and performance of their infrastructure.

In your conversations with customers do you see a growing trend for modernisation or are companies still lagging behind?

Many companies are already recognising that they need to modernise; they know that it’s no longer enough to rely on the aging systems they have in place. However, in some instances we’re seeing organisations that are going ahead with data centre modernisation, but not considering that they need to modernise their network, too.

Unfortunately, this means that some organisations are lagging far behind their competition, as modernising one area when the two are so dependent on each other means that these organisations are never going to realise the real performance or economic benefits from modernisation.

For example, if an organisation implements flash in the data centre to improve their data centre performance, but they are still running on a legacy network, they will not be able see the full benefit from deploying flash. A legacy network is simply going to act as a bottleneck on the information passing through it to the end point, regardless of the rate at which it is delivered to the network from the data centre.

Do you think we will reach a stage where organisations have a more flexible infrastructure so that we don’t see these sorts of problems re-appearing?

In the world of digital transformation, a good definition of flexibility is the ability to create applications and services, evolving their use and importance in the business without having to re-engineer the infrastructure at each stage. The primary issue here is the tension between rapid service creation/fail-fast on one hand and making new services reliable and consistent as they become important to the business – production as usual.

The approach employed by a number of the All Flash storage vendors is a good example of how to achieve this. Simple interfaces and rich APIs, are underpinned by service level guarantees and extremely high levels of availability. Such approaches clearly show why upgrades to legacy infrastructure are vital in order to create an environment where the next generation of critical applications and services will run. Many All Flash vendors are creating infrastructure components and solutions that bridge both worlds, supporting rapid deployment and resilient operation.

Optimisation is also key to moving services flexibly from prototype to production. Visibility and tools are required to ensure that service levels for performance do not diminish as the application goes through its business lifecycle. This is especially important where underlying resources are shared. The defining issue here is how you maintain day-1 performance on day-364 and beyond, while scaling with the business.

Analytics and optimisation tools deliver the means to create shared infrastructure that accommodates the many, while meeting the needs of the few. As such, IT organisations remove compromise and avoid the need to create application specific infrastructure; therefore benefitting from much greater flexibility.

Do you think automation has a role to play in this?

It’s all too often the case that IT teams are overworked and understaffed, even in the largest organisations. Having the ability to apply automation, especially at the network layer, has huge implications for freeing up precious time amongst IT teams. Automation enables them to focus on delivering faster, more efficient, and smarter IT services to the business, which can then help drive digital transformation; otherwise, IT departments will forever be focusing on activities such as raising a ticket or provisioning compute resource, which can easily be solved through automation.

To maintain a competitive edge, organisations must focus on automating the network, beginning with traditionally manual tasks, to save time and resources, reduce human error, and increase business and IT agility in concert with integrating automation solutions with other IT tools and processes throughout the organisation.

In addressing this, network automation becomes key to modernising data centres which in turn is key to digital transformation.

Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.