It’s the middle of 2010. Borders Books is on the brink of extinction.
Borders has too many stores, too much debt, has invested heavily in CD sales and entertainment, and outsourced its web presence. In a last-ditch attempt to compete, Borders releases a low-cost e-reader.
Apple, on the other hand, releases the iPad. The iPad is built on the iOS mobile operating system and that in turn is founded upon Apple’s web-scale data center infrastructure. The device allows users not only to read books, but listen to music, watch movies, send email, make phone calls, write a novel, crunch numbers, play games, make a purchase, surf the internet.
The e-reader couldn’t save Borders. Borders filed for bankruptcy in February of 2011 and seven months later closed the last of its U.S. stores.
The static, inefficient, inconvenient Borders delivery system – the stores, the checkout lines, the trips to the mall only to find a narrow selection or stock-outs, the traffic, the parking, the form factor of the books and other entertainment, and the tepid attempt to bring more digital resources to bear with the website and e-books – was found wanting.
On the other hand, Apple figured out a way to monetize its digital infrastructure. In effect, Apple was able to present its data center infrastructure as a storefront – to merchandise the data that resides in its data centers – to customers in an attractive and convenient way.
So an enterprise’s digital platform – the combination of access devices, IT hardware, operating software, and data center infrastructure – is a critical element, perhaps the critical element, of business strategy. It must be chosen consciously. As Apple’s was. By its CEO.
And if you think this doesn’t apply to you and your business, think otherwise.
You Are No Better Than Your Weakest Digits
Your business is either delivered to your customer digitally, or has high digital content. That digital element may be invisible to your customers, or it may be the centerpiece of how they interact with you. Nevertheless, the digital platform governs their ability – and therefore your ability – to meet customer satisfaction and growth objectives.
Here’s what Patrick Flynn, the head of IO’s Applied Intelligence group, has to say about this, in a current interview:
“…digital infrastructure mediates every interaction with every constituency. Within a company. Between a company and its vendors. Most important, with a company’s customers. Even if I go to my local bank branch, all the teller is doing is accessing a software application to deposit my check. Whether I deposit my check with a smart phone app, or whether I go to the branch, fundamentally, my entire satisfaction with that bank is completely dependent on the performance of its software.”
IT delivers applications to users, and keeps them connected to the applications, based on its data center infrastructure. Where those applications live, how they are accessed, how they are powered and supported, how they are protected, is critically important.
Digital Infrastructure Types
The task of digital infrastructure is to keep applications connected to customers and users. And to do so in the most efficient way possible, in order to achieve the business’s strategic and policy objectives.The power, cooling, network, and IT that are necessary to keep customers and users connected to applications can be provided in the following ways:
Legacy: Custom-constructed data centers Server closets: Small spaces converted to housing servers and other IT gear, generally on an ad hoc basis
Containers: Converted freight container that houses IT gear
Modular: Purpose-built, standardized manufactured data center units, either for housing server and other IT gear, or housing power conditioning and distribution gear
Colocation: Location of a company’s servers in a third party environment with other businesses’ servers
Private Cloud: Cloud implemented behind an enterprise’s firewall, under control of the IT department
Public Cloud: Cloud implemented on third party servers and other IT infrastructure
Shadow IT: Line of business staff going outside the confines of enterprise IT for Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications.
Do you know what you have in each category?
Data Center Chaos – Disguised
What many companies have is data center infrastructure chaos, cleverly disguised in impressive buildings – a collection of custom- built, one-off data centers of different vintages. None of which are consistent with any of the others. Isolated silos of capacity. With either the wrong amount of space, or the wrong amount of power, or the right amount of space and power overall but in all the wrong places. Not secure. Slow and costly to deploy. Add to this, perhaps, a hodge-podge of colocation and cloud services provided by different providers and vendors. All of which compromises the ability to achieve business and performance objectives.
Additionally, many companies have no software to see and control what’s going on across the entire data center footprint – or worse, numerous, different, non-integrated applications that can’t give an overall picture of performance.
So, to be blunt, your ability to reach and satisfy your customers, to grow your business, and therefore a major portion of your enterprise’s business value, rests on this chaos. Unless you fix this, you’re potentially another Borders waiting to get knocked off by someone who sees how to deliver value to customers with a cohesive, unified, and more powerful digital infrastructure.
The Eight Key Attributes a Data Center Infrastructure Platform Should Have
If your company has the technology and financial resources of Apple, and their scale, you can customize your own data center infrastructure platform. On the other hand, most enterprises need a standardized, flexible, and efficient data center infrastructure platform to serve as the basis for delivering applications to customers and users.
So what attributes should a data center infrastructure platform have in order to be able to deliver value to customers in the most competitive way possible? Here’s the eight most important, in our view:
1. Standard Units of Deployment. The same data center everywhere, for consistency in operation, consistency in response to crisis, and to ease software integration.
2. Flexibility in Deployment. Data center infrastructure delivered in thin slices, quickly, as needed. Enterprises can buy today what they need today, and buy tomorrow what’s needed tomorrow. Can be scaled to as large as the enterprise could possibly need. Can be delivered as a product or as a service, anywhere in the world. Available as cloud for on-demand deployment for urgent and/or interim requirements. Consistent implementation and visible through software no matter whether it is delivered as colo, cloud, or on-premises.
3. The Entire Data Center. The data center infrastructure platform should incorporate the entire data center. That is, it must incorporate the equipment and infrastructure that provides power, cooling, network connectivity and the security envelope around the business’s information assets. And should provide connectivity into the upper levels of the IT stack. And insure that all components of the entire IT stack are transparent and visible to each other and to the operator.
4. Software-Defined. Software pools data center resources as an efficient way to meet the technical, business, and policy requirements of applications, and then controls and automates the delivery of those resources, and orchestrates the running of application workloads.
5. Extensible Architecture and Forward-Protected. Capable of evolving density and resiliency requirements. Capable of in-place upgradeability. So you don’t have to predict today what your IT needs will be in five years.
6. Business Intelligence. Able to generate data, analytics, and reporting on every conceivable aspect of operating performance. Business intelligence is applied to all other parts of the business – the data center should not be an exception.
7. Secure. Able to provide robust security on three levels: physical, logical, and custodial.
8. Ecosystem. Open for operators, users, and third party application developers to create new and useful applications.
The Buck Stops with You
Who is responsible for getting the business on the right platform? Here’s what Flynn has to say:
“If a CEO is not thinking about the quality of the digital customer experience they are delivering, the quality of the data they’re getting, the efficiency of the system that stores it and processes it, the tools with which everybody in his organization can access the right data, at the right time, for the right insight, for the right value, they’re going to get passed by.”
Yes, it is still the CIO who is tasked with running the IT organization. But it is the CEO who is responsible for growing the enterprise. For instilling order. And for survival. Apple’s ability to get its data center infrastructure to perform at the highest imaginable levels has had enormous consequences. For both Apple and for Borders.
So there can be no passing of the buck on this issue.
It’s the CEO’s job to pick the data center infrastructure platform.