How far will software-defined solutions, including networks and data centres, take you on the road to IT maturity?
No matter how extensive the choice of devices you might offer to staff, “if they don’t like it they will find any excuse under the sun to avoid using it”.
So says John Hoang, senior systems engineer at the Sydney Adventist Hospital ('The San', as it is known to most Sydneysiders), speaking to a Computerworld workshop sponsored by EMC and Infront.
Sometimes helping the “more experienced” staff to get over the hurdles of adapting to new technology can be a problem, he says, even in the rapidly-developing high tech environment of a leading hospital. The issue is highlighted when compared with those “more energetic” staff who take to new tech like so many ducks to water.
Hoang takes regular walks around the wards to assess the issues facing medical staff. You would think that the traditional clipboard at the end of the patient’s bed is on the way out, replaced by laptop and tablets, but there are still those who think “the keyboard is hard to use or the screen too small”.
Despite minor quibbles and major predispositions, the hospital is moving rapidly to a highly digitised, paperless operation. The dream of a medical facility – let alone an entire industry – where patient records, medical treatments, pathology results, radiology imagery and even financial status can be shared wherever and whenever needed has been touted for some years, at both government and institutional level. But it is not easy to achieve.
The Sydney Adventist Hospital has a rapidly dwindling physical desktop footprint, Hoang says, BYOD and Zero Clients means that traditional support calls drop away dramatically. But there are still other obstacles, one of the most important being the security of information, followed by ensuring patient identity (RFID anyone?), connectivity, stability and the developing IT/business relationship.
In Hoang’s case, this is all centred around a move to software-defined operations and data centres.
“IT is being transformed by intelligent software,” says Darren Reynolds, manager with EMC. Service that used to take days or months is now achieved in minutes or even seconds, predetermined IT is being replaced by user choice computing, and ‘flat tax’ billing by metered operations. “The ramifications for IT are quite dramatic.”
Reynolds says that infrastructure must adapt to the in-creeping of ‘third platform’ IT – mobile, cloud, big data, social media – into all aspects of operations and business. Software-defined architecture means the role of existing hardware is diminished in favour of a growing software layer, where what were once manual operations are now automated.
This includes software-defined storage and data centres, and the need to make strategic and tactical decisions around the choice of cloud type – public, private or hybrid.
A key element of this is the ability of the IT department to regain control of the IT operations of an organisation – increasing agility and responsiveness means that there should no longer be the need or incentive of other business units to set up their own ‘shadow’ IT operations.
Carl Stanfield, manager with Infront, says a major benefit of intelligent software is a move from highly complex operations – both physically and graphically – to user-friendly interfaces that are actually friendly to users.
The role of cloud in this, where intelligent software-defined operations exist, requires a considered approach, he says, “as compelling as the benefits might seem”. There is need to evaluate the cost benefit viability of a move to cloud, which can be difficult if financial implications are not clear.
Deciding which workloads to move to cloud can be difficult, and then there is the management of what are often multiple relationships with various cloud providers. There is an underlying infrastructure for cloud-ready data centres, he adds, which relies on automation, virtualization and consolidation.
Hoang says his server infrastructure is 80-90 per cent virtualized, and around 60 per cent for desktops and 50 per cent of the network is virtualized. From a security perspective, the potential for screen-scraping in a virtualized environment doesn’t happen, and authentication relies on an identity engine which works with both remote access and internal connection.
Self-service compute and accessing applications is one area where Hoang has not moved far along the “SDDC journey”, though a contributing factor here is the need to maintain the utmost security. One day, they would like to offer app-store kiosk type environments, and the hospital is trialling self-service compute resources for its dev team so they don’t have to wait for engineers to provide the facilities they need.
In fact, his software development team has not had any great problem adapting to an SDDC environment, he says, and this has allowed them to increasingly make the move into mobile apps development.
Hoang says his help desk has moved away from the majority of its work being hands-in on the desktop, addressing user issues of applications not working or hardware failing.
In fact, virtualisation and the use of intelligent software has meant that his organisation has more than doubled its desktop infrastructure while at the same time reducing the support team, with a minimal increase in the engineering team and becoming fully up-to-date with patching.
But where is he on the software-defined journey? Not fully there yet, is the answer. Different operations are at different stages – virtualization of the network, desktop, servers and app development are all in hand, self-service less so.
Stanfield suggests that depicting the journey to SDDC ‘nirvana’ follows two axes – IT maturity and cloud maturity. IT maturity ranges from “chaotic” at the lowest end to “value based” at the highest. Similarly, cloud maturity ranges from “physical” through consolidation, integration, automation, ITaaS, to federation. He suggests that the SAN is roughly midway on that journey, while most organisations are somewhat lower down – about stage 2 out of 5.
But whether you are just starting out on the journey and seeing a light at the end of tunnel, there are aspects outside of technology alone that must be considered. One is the importance of the relationship with the business.
In response to a question during the workshop on how much influence the IT department has on the business, Hoang stressed that it should be a synergistic relationship, with the needs of the business driving the technology as much as opportunities offered by technology directing how the business will develop.
This means more than a service-provider relationship when dealing with non-IT people. “Our initial plan was to mandate how users would input data.” The hospital’s aim is to move totally away from ‘pen and paper’ data input – the clipboard at the end of the bed – but Hoang soon realised that he “had to take a few steps back”. “They’re not technologists. They want to work with people not machines.”
If software-defined operations can help those users to reduce complexity, increase IT responsiveness and offer opportunities for self-service, however long that might take, then it should mean a significant improvement in productivity and achievement.