Infrastructure Needs To Be Invisible – Even To IT

The days where admins would spend their time configuring networks and provision servers are almost at an end, as many admins can tell you. This effort is more and more handed-off to cloud platforms. This trend is preceding a fundamental shift in the way IT functions.

IT used to be about providing technology for business and enabling companies to digitize their needs. Digital transformation was, in those early days, mostly an afterthought: computers, applications, and infrastructure first, a transformation would then follow second. Since that didn’t automatically happen and businesses have been struggling to really transform the way they work for decades, it’s obvious that this strategy often didn’t have the desired effect. Another downside was that IT became about IT: it existed mostly for the benefit of facilitating technology. So IT then becomes about uptime of servers, maintaining printers, providing back-ups, etcetera, but not about employing technology for the betterment of business processes. 

IT is transforming – again

But that has been changing with the advent of technologies like cloud infrastructures, software-defined networking, self-service for the quicker resolution of level one tickets, and more. As more tech companies have evangelized during the last decade, IT has transformed from a department that facilitates technology to a department that looks at business needs and figures out a way to perform tasks better, faster, and more efficiently with that technology. The edge IT gives a business enables it to adapt to, or even disrupt, new business models.  “Conversations around IT tended to focus on transactional technology, frameworks or the bones of a solution”, wrote CDW’s VP of integrated services engagement Stephen Braat in a 2018 report (PDF) on infrastructure modernization. “Today, however, real business transformation is borne on the shoulders of technology. From internal stakeholders all the way to customers, IT is taking center stage as a strategic investment.”

That is, at least, the theory. In reality, IT tends to deal more with those supposedly disappearing infrastructure configurations, network settings, and level one procedures than some tech companies promise in those spirited talks about the changing face of IT. Why? Let’s look at that fundamental component for IT: the infrastructure. With cloud, automatic provisioning, and other off-prem services, infrastructure shouldn’t be as big of a factor as it were before.

Greater infrastructure = greater complexity

And yet it is. The main reason has to do with increased complexity. The public cloud future, where all applications, data, and business processes are hosted off-prem, has not come to pass. A minority of companies switched fully to public cloud, while a vast majority has opted for a hybrid approach: offload to the public cloud all that you can get away with, and keep things on-prem for performance or data security. Flexera, in its State of the Cloud 2020 report, estimates hybrid adoption at 53 percent in its 2020 report, while within cloud adoption over-all, 74 percent is a hybrid of public and private. Another trend in recent years is, unsurprisingly, multicloud. Companies don’t tend to throw all their eggs in one basket and employ a multitude of cloud offerings for different business needs. 

Suppliers have noticed the way the wind is blowing and are touting hybrid platforms: “With Product X you get the best of both worlds: your own datacenter and the cloud.” An appealing prospect, to be sure. But definitely not easier for IT. The same thing goes for multicloud: tying offerings like Azure, Oracle, VMware, AWS, and more together makes the environment more complex. Couple that with the fact that only one-third of companies that employ this tactic use multicloud tooling for managing their environments, and it’s easy to see why this approach gives many frontline workers in IT headaches. One redeeming trend may be that more companies are interested in using MSPs for managing instead of in-house IT. That certainly does not decrease complexity, but it should simplify the primary task of modern IT: focus on digitally transforming business needs.

From complex infrastructure to common substrate

As it stands right now, companies are doing it all: using a serverless environment, maintaining (in some cases, rebuilding) their own data centers, enabling containerization, using several platforms-as-a-service – and IT is faced with the task of tying a neat little bow around this new complex infrastructure. While the board is being dazzled with stats on simplicity and ‘single pane of glass’ approaches, IT sees yet another element to plug into an ever-expanding environment of tools, networks, and platforms. 

The end result is that if you’re a developer at an IT department, you still need to concern yourself with the infrastructure more than was promised. What cloud platform is in use? How are containers provisioned? What toolchain is used for these tasks? How is the environment maintained and configured? What dependencies at Y do you run into when you make changes to X? What type of added value platform is the business also running that impacts the process? 

In short, the infrastructure needs to be a common substrate where developers just plug into, but it isn’t. Maybe this is one of the reasons DevOps and tools like Chef and Ansible have become a mainstay in IT: you need people for both the development side and the practical technology side to make your particular environment work for your needs. What IT truly needs is interoperability between all moving parts and automation of the infrastructure. That is happening more and more, but we’re not all the way there yet. Infrastructure needs to be invisible – even to IT – so businesses can focus on strategy, digital transformation, and disruption.

Future in actual digital transformation

When infrastructure is indeed no longer a concern for IT, the focus can really be on actual transformation: planning the business processes around technology, instead of adopting the next big thing in tech that comes along. In this particular future, IT will look at the business needs beyond the need for things like assistive tools, cloud applications, and providing mobile technology, and look at the business itself: what is the actual business solution that this company brings to market, what are the factors that decide its success, and how do you provide those in a digital age? Only then, when the processes are truly digital, can a company actually quickly adapt to changing needs, instead of getting bogged down in procurement procedures and change management.

“Digitally determined customers work to achieve differentiation with applications and experiences, rather than through infrastructure deployments”, IDC’s Al Gillen is quoted by SUSE when the open-source company decided to pull out of OpenStack. In other words, the future of technology lies in application development and enabling business needs, the underlying infrastructure is secondary. Not even secondary, it should become irrelevant.