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How the iPad ruined the lives of IT architects

The problem of defining solution availability in 2013

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For IT architects, one of the most important non-functional requirements to determine is the availability needs of a system’s users.

It’s often expensive and risky adding availability features to an already deployed solution, so getting it right first time is important. In current times however, we’re being asked to regularly provide levels of solution availability that until recently were reserved for the largest of enterprises, and perhaps more worrying, the business justification for these grand expectations is getting stronger and more un-deniable by the day.

The question is, are we right to be shocked at the requirements of even the most simple sounding internal IT systems? And are we in a period in which IT departments are struggling to deliver business expectations because they haven’t kept up with the pace of change? I believe so.

The impact of the consumerisation of high quality IT In times past, consumer IT had little impact on the design of business IT solutions because the IT we used at home was built to a low budget and to be just good enough. Today, it’s the other way round, the consumerisation of high quality IT has happened and is setting the standard for business IT.

My iPad is more robust than most of the appliances in my kitchen never mind an enterprise data centre, while a minor social media outage of Facebook quickly turns into a major financial media outrage. As a result of this turnaround, the role of an IT architect has got even harder, especially in the small- and mid-enterprise sectors where arguably the pace of IT change has never been faster and the lack of IT governance has never been lower.

Always wanting always available

With their iPads always working and Facebook always being online, business users increasingly have the same expectation of the IT systems they use.

It’s now not un-common for architects to have to accommodate everything from the finance director wanting to look at KPI dashboards while at a conference eight time zones away to allowing marketing teams to analyse the company’s Twitter feed during peak-time TV slots.

For IT departments with staff that grew up with 9 to 5 working hours, these are requirements that have been hard to predict let alone efficiently accommodate. The question for architects to answer now is whether having true 24/7 systems is an excessive requirement that has no business case or something that can be genuinely justified.

Justifying these requirements while acknowledging social change

Helping business users understand, justify, and quantify their requirements is the skill of a good architect, and is a process we can still use to define availability needs even if it’s to show that ultra-high availability needs bring ultra-high costs.

We could compare a future solution’s availability needs to existing systems – does the new web site need to be more available than the dispatching system etc. The big change in 2013 that I see though it that while this traditional approach may still feel adequate, we need to make sure it doesn’t make us appear antiquated and in denial of recent changes in the world outside of IT.

This is where both the consumerisation of IT has had an impact along with broader social changes as unless you work at Yahoo, remote working is now common in most organisations, and unless you’re a clock watcher or bank clerk working 9 to 5 is a thing of the past. Consequently, it should no longer be a surprise to anyone in IT when availability requirements are to deliver full functionality 24/7.

Delivering this availability

To conclude with then, the problem architects now have is the delivery of infrastructures to support these expected levels of 24/7 availability. Quoting 99.5per cent availability SLAs these days suggests to me that we want the business to feel grateful for whenever the solution is available.

Instead, what we need to be doing is blurring a solution’s non-functional availability and reliability requirements and be using statements like “the service will be available 24/7, but when there is a problem, whatever the problem, normal service will be resumed in less than 60 seconds.”

Finding a platform that can meet this claim is where we increasingly see internal IT infrastructures haven’t, or can’t, keep up with user expectations. Instead, the answer like it seems to be for everyone but the richest organisations will almost certainly be the cloud. That brings a new and bigger challenge for the IT architect, how do we learn to trust a face-less cloud service provider to meet our potentially most important non-functional requirement of the future: 100% availability? ®

Gavin Payne is a Microsoft Certified Architect who scopes, designs, implements and migrates mission critical data platforms. You can hear him share his knowledge and experiences at the "Iasa UK Architect Summit - Enabling Disruptive Innovation" on the 25th and 26th of April 2013 in London. Click here to find out more.

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