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28th of May 2017

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The future of enterprise IT operations

The arrival of the digital age is changing the way organisations work, and how they interact with the outside world. Highly competitive and disruption-prone markets demand businesses to think fast and act fast – and IT capabilities are widely recognised as the key to success. Yet, the role of Enterprise IT is often associated with cost and frustration, rather than that of enabler, or perhaps even driver of innovation. Can this image be repaired?

When people talk about Enterprise IT, what they often refer to is the Operations side of the IT world. And, to be even more specific – it is the Technical Operations (TechOps, sometimes also referred to as Operations Engineering) part of the team that is under significant pressure to meet the ever-increasing demands of their business while being itself disrupted by the advances of technology. Service Operations, the other part of the corporate IT team – usually associated with the Service Desk, but at least in theory covering a lot more – is battling its own maturity challenges in the service economy.

TechOps is where the magic happens – where new servers are provisioned and database platforms are updated, and by whom that new version of the ERP software is installed. As historically all new capacity and functionality used to come with significantly increased fragility to the existing hardware and software setup, the focus in TechOps tended to be on the control side of things. It was their responsibility to keep the lights on while implementing the changes – akin to refurbishing a cruise ship while crossing the Atlantic, with all passengers on board. 

And, with that hefty task on their shoulders, a culture of “No” emerged – leading to Enterprise IT sometimes being described as slow, unresponsive, a blocker to getting the work done, and everything but a team player. The emergence of Service Operations started shifting the focus to customer value and continual improvement, but in many organisations only the technical side of this – process – was adopted. “No” became codified in hundred-page process documents and painfully detailed procedures; something that was felt as needed, even required to get the work done.

Addressing two challenges

To truly become a partner for the rest of the business, TechOps needs to address two challenges – one that has to do with technology, and another one that requires a change in the mind-set. Neither is easy, but to look at this from the enterprise point of view – not doing this is also not an option. Leveraging IT to achieve a competitive advantage has quickly become a norm in most industries, and an increasing number of ‘traditional’ businesses can describe themselves today as ‘digital’.

Technological innovation has also crossed the bridge over to the non-IT side of the organisation, as business leaders who previously relied on their IT team to do the introductions are getting more involved in research and decision making on which technology to use. For many IT leaders this feels like a loss of control, accentuated by public broadcasts from their peers in other, allegedly more digital organisations, showing off their accomplishments.

There are a few significant trends in the world of IT that can potentially provide a significant boost to the capabilities of TechOps, and the common thread through all of these is re-focus on value-added activities, ditching non-core-business work, and fully leveraging Cloud computing.

Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) have brought attention back on to automation, which now can be done in a much more predictable way. Scheduling predefined scripts for maintenance, or using them for, for example, server imaging is not a new concept, but as both software and hardware used to be more ‘artisan’, there was often the need for manual intervention to really get it working. Code often failed when it reached production, and the same happened with hardware when actual demand did not match the planned capacity. With today’s technology, designing a true end-to-end automation pipeline has become possible, removing the need for IT professionals to perform manual repetitive work. An added bonus of CI/CD is significantly improved testing – automated quality gates prevent faulty code from ever reaching production, and there are logs for everything.

Decoupling is trending

Another trend is decoupling – both in software, designing microservices instead of bulky ‘monoliths’, and in hardware, with added abstraction layers between hardware and the operator. Serverless computing and lambda functions are changing the basic tenets of how TechOps works – hardware management can be outsourced, and capacity management can be made into a real-time automated task, provided the financial constraints are well defined. This, like the automated CI/CD pipeline, leaves TechOps with more time to get involved in the design and development phases for new IT solutions, as well as helping other teams to become more efficient, thus contributing even more to business and customer value.

TechOps professionals possess a unique set of skills when it comes to running infrastructure and applications. Even with Cloud computing, CI/CD, and serverless, the need to design and support well-functioning infrastructure remains. Good architecture leverages new technologies, but new technologies themselves do not replace good architecture. Somebody needs to pull it all together, and keep it running.

Of course, every project, every feature team could design their own models for resilient and easily scalable infrastructure in the cloud, choose the tools, and take ownership of maintaining it all and ensuring integration with the rest of the teams, projects, and products works. Or – and here’s an opportunity for TechOps to step up – there can be a team that does it for them in a cost-effective, easily maintainable, responsive, and efficient manner.

TechOps have the potential to become a key enabler for the organisation on their journey to fully leverage the capabilities of modern IT, but this is not just about technology. They cannot simply be passive order-takers. Enterprise IT Operations needs to become a partner, and a trusted advisor for the rest of the organisation. And, more often than not, they already know how.

Adapting the existing skillset and applying previous experience to a specific challenge or an improvement opportunity is highly context-specific. Emerging technologies and practices rarely come ‘with a manual’, and the best way to apply these is discovered through experimentation and continual learning. ITIL Practitioner provides a set of guiding principles, as well as a practical toolkit to help design these experiments and support sustainable continual improvement in an organisation of any size.

Kaimar Karu, Head of ITIL Product Strategy and Development at AXELOSImage source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

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