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Is the server layer just a commodity?

Or can it ever be?

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Workshop It’s been a while since Nicholas Carr wrote his polemic ‘Does IT matter? which documented how IT was commoditising, turning into a utility with little to differentiate itself – a theme which he continued in the book The Big Switch.

He was clearly demonstrating an economist’s grasp of technology – falling onto the trap of assuming that it should all just work, and if it doesn’t yet, it will only be a matter of time before it does. Such a stance is admirable but it misses two central points, that the IT operating in most organisations doesn’t, and may never ‘just work’ – and that the offerings of service providers such as Salesforce.com and Google are hardly sufficient to satisfy the demands of even the smallest organisations.

Having said that, Carr still had a point – that technology is not an end in itself, or to put it another way, “It’s what you do with it that counts.” Server rooms across the globe really should ‘just work’, because if they don’t, the applications they support won’t work either. This gives us another perspective on our server capabilities. Not only do we need to think about the servers themselves, but also, what’s driving the requirements on the applications? And perhaps more important still, how do we ensure that the needs of both are correctly aligned?

This raises a number organisational and political challenges. The people who look after servers are different to the people who look after databases, applications, packages, collaboration tools and the like. We know from previous workshops that the many groups involved do not always get along.

But also, the forces on each are very different From the server administrator perspective the diversity of applications is a challenge to anybody trying to keep everything running: unexpected upgrades and new deployments foisted upon administration staff with little warning; conflicts in terms of shared libraries and system configurations; poorly defined architectures with little thought to what might go wrong; or insufficient budget allocated to backup, failover and the like. The list goes on.

From the applications perspective, the server environment is by its nature restrictive. In the ideal world, all applications would exist in their own logical silos, protected from the limitations and vagaries of other platforms. Perhaps virtualization will be the answer to this, at some point in the future when it earns its mainstream stripes.

But right now the two opposing forces remain. The hardware and platform layer tends towards Carr-like commoditisation, as the economic forces prefer locked down to opened up, while the application and service delivery layer needs to remain open to whatever new offerings developers and application software vendors throw at it.

Wheels on the bus fall off and off

Get this balance right and, while things may operate sub-optimally, they will nonetheless operate. Get it wrong and service levels can very quickly start to suffer. Many will be familiar with environments where the wheels have well and truly fallen off the pram, where users are dissatisfied, where blame is being parcelled out like the end of rationing, where the underlying causes are so ingrained into every aspect of the technical and political environment that it takes very bold management to resolve the issues. Thankfully, we know from research that such situations are the exception rather than the norm.

The general consensus (feel free to disagree) is that the ideal server layer is one which can adapt to the needs of its applications, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Various terms have been used to describe such a capability – through the years, we have heard about on-demand IT, adaptive infrastructure, dynamic IT and so on.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this principle, but for many organisations it remains just that – a principle. Few have the luxury of ripping everything up and starting again, and even those of you who are conducting large-scale consolidation exercises know that it’s only a matter of time before all that new-and-improved hardware will once again appear old and obsolete.

Meanwhile, we keep plugging away, making do, keeping the lights on and doing the best job we can. We’d be interested to hear about your own experiences of course – perhaps you have actually found the magic bullet, or maybe you’ve consolidated your IT environment in the past and are now watching the paint start to peel.

If you’ve found what you believe is a good middle ground, what’s the secret of your success – is it down to good communications with the applications teams, having the right responsibilities in place? Or is it just keeping ahead of the game and being very good at what you do, ‘looking after number one’ as it were, keeping focused and paying attention to what’s coming?

If you have any horror stories of train wreck IT, please feel free to get them off your chests. But most of all, please do let us know of your experiences about the part the server layer can play, and indeed how efforts should be prioritised, such that IT in general really can ‘just work’. In the future, perhaps IT will stop mattering only once we care about it enough to make it so.

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