We need to talk about enterprise infrastructure

Aditya Vadaganadam, Business Agility Practice Coach, UST

This rise of the new ways of working is only piling immense pressure on traditional infrastructure organisations - to reform and rethink in every aspect of their operating model - challenge processes built on a foundation of ITIL and perceived stability.

Aditya Vadaganadam, Business Agility Practice Coach, UST

Aditya Vadaganadam, Business Agility Practice Coach, UST

Aditya Vadaganadam is a technology and business transformation consultant with a passion and experience working with core stack, legacy, and enterprise infrastructure areas. He has lived and worked across Asia, Africa and Europe and is part of the agile transformation team of UST. He helps organizations pursue smarter working methods by leveraging DevOps and agile principles and practices.

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How agile infrastructure can help your business win

Most enterprises today need digitisation. Businesses require flexibility, on-demand, faster, and without compromising on quality. Consequently, the necessary technology infrastructure to support business strategy needs a combination of consistency and quality combined with greater speed, innovation, flexibility, and customer intimacy.

Business stakeholders increasingly consider infrastructure as equal partners on this journey and not a subservient IT function. So, what has caused this shift in thinking?

Three game changers explain the context better:

  1. Adoption of Cloud by Enterprises.

  2. Agile and DevOps ways.

  3. Cross-fertilization of ideas from start-ups.

Adoption of Cloud - By 2025, Gartner estimates that over 95% of new digital workloads will be deployed on cloud-native platforms, up from 30% in 2021. This indicates that enterprises are past the quick wins of new workloads such as digital front ends and will now struggle with the difficult areas of their mid and back-office stack – the bulk of the enterprise apps where the traditional infrastructure organisation, complicated processes, and ‘old-school’ rules.

Agile and DevOps - The 15th State of Agile Report from 2021 shows that rapid Agile and DevOps transformation and value stream management initiatives are underway in more than two-thirds of organisations. This rise of the new ways of working is only piling immense pressure on traditional infrastructure organisations – to reform and rethink in every aspect of their operating model – challenge processes built on a foundation of ITIL and perceived stability.

The start-up way - Enterprises are increasingly being influenced by start-ups and how they achieve innovations. There is a cross-fertilization of people moving to enterprises who are challenging the thinking in these enterprises – especially in infrastructure. Teams are now embracing once-alien concepts such as chaos engineering and anti-fragility.

However, what is missing is a systemic view of Infrastructure as a value enabler.

And that is changing now. One by one, the barriers to infrastructure agility will break down. Let me explain and walk you through the patterns of change.


Patterns of change in the world of Infra

Operating Models - New operating models are emerging to meet the business demand for infrastructure agility. These emphasize transparency, business-aligned prioritisation of work, and responsive sharing instead of blind pursuit of efficiencies and input cost savings. Consider something fundamental as a service desk operation. A few years ago, this was considered non-core and frequently outsourced to the lowest-cost provider. However, the new and nuanced approach to looking at a responsive service desk can save the broader organisation millions of hours of lost productivity.

T-shaped skills - In the infrastructure world, single points of failure and bottlenecks are common problems. This is because teams are often siloed, with each team responsible for a specific area of expertise, such as networks, operating systems, remote working tools, and end-user computing. While there are good reasons (in many cases) for the super-specialisation, this can lead to problems when there is a communication breakdown or when a team member is unavailable.

Many teams are now adopting a T-shaped skills approach to address this issue. This means that team members have deep expertise in a specific area and a broad understanding of other areas. This allows team members to work more effectively and solve problems more quickly.

Disrupting with Cloud - Enterprises are disrupting their traditional infrastructure capabilities by aggressively pursuing private, public and hybrid cloud capabilities – the business benefits are multi-fold such as servicing demand in spikes, reducing capex in technology investments, lightning-fast response times, rapid deployment of new features and capabilities.

Legacy technology transformation – Operating legacy systems constitute a significant challenge for many businesses. They are often outdated, difficult to maintain, and expensive to operate. Often, the responsibility and ownership of the legacy stack fall onto the shoulders of the enterprise infrastructure department.

However, there is a new wave of optimism about the future of legacy systems. This optimism is driven by the adoption of modern engineering practices that can make legacy systems more efficient, secure, and scalable. The conversation about legacy systems is also becoming more nuanced. In the past, the only option for many businesses was to get rid of legacy systems. However, there are now several different approaches that include the adoption of modern engineering practices, including CI-CD-based automation of software life cycle, code analysis, APIs to expose legacy systems to modern applications, virtualization (infrastructure and application levels), lightweight integration, and test automation are a few to name.

Self-service infra provisioning is a game-changer for business – In the past, companies were often limited by the amount of infrastructure they had available. This meant they had to carefully plan their infrastructure needs in advance, which could lead to delays in development and deployment. Self-service infrastructure provisioning eliminates this problem by allowing businesses to provision infrastructure on-demand, as needed. This leads to a radical reduction in cycle times and enables enterprises to consider rapid experiments with new features and applications. This would have been unimaginable a decade ago, but environments on demand are fast becoming the new business as usual.


Our vision and approach to infrastructure agility - techniques and practices

Atoms vs. Bits - The 'atoms vs. bits' lens is a useful lens and mental model to examine the current state of enterprise infrastructure. It helps us to understand the different types of assets that exist, and it helps us to identify the areas where there is potential for innovation.

The terms "atoms" and "bits" refer to two different types of assets: physical assets (atoms) and digital assets (bits) - originally coined by Nicholas Negroponte in 1995 (being digital) and more recently by Peter Thiel (Zero to One in 2004) – who contrasted the innovation in the world of atoms vs. bits. The point of the atoms vs. bits distinction is that innovation has been happening much faster in the world of bits than in the world of atoms. This is because digital assets are easier to create, copy, and distribute than physical assets. As a result, there are many more opportunities for innovation in the world of bits.

However, the world of atoms is still important. Physical assets are still needed to produce goods and services, and they are still needed to provide people with services. As a result, there is still a need for innovation in the world of atoms. The challenge for enterprise infrastructure is finding ways to innovate in both the world of bits and atoms. Businesses that can do this will be well-positioned to succeed in the future.

Start with visualisation - If you want to improve your Infrastructure services and products, then visualizing your work is a great place to start. Fans of the Kanban method will recognize that once you have visualized your current workflow, you can begin to identify the pain points. These are the areas where work is not flowing smoothly or where there are bottlenecks.

Here are some specific benefits of visualizing your workflow and even beyond workflow – policies, plans, dependencies, priorities, decisions and, more importantly principles:

Language matters - When transforming your enterprise, use frameworks and language specific to infrastructure teams. This will show that you value their contributions and are committed to their success. Do not just repackage frameworks and serve them.

Apply first principles and mental models and not lazy adoption of prescriptive frameworks; focus on the unique challenges of infrastructure teams.

Process simplification - Optimise first and then automate. Or risk automating your inefficient process.

WIP - The WIP (work in process) limit is your buddy, especially in the infrastructure world, because the work is often complex and time-consuming. Balancing 'Run the enterprise' and 'Change the enterprise' requires counter-intuitive policies such as limiting WIP, which can improve workflow through the infrastructure lifecycle.

ITIL v4- ITIL v4 is your friend. Infrastructure teams are often more familiar with ITIL (Information technology information library) than the agile manifesto. ITIL has been around for longer and is more widely used. If you are setting out to transform enterprise infrastructure to help align with agile ways, start with ITIL.

For instance, here are the seven guiding principles of ITIL v4, which are influenced by agile, Kanban DevOps and lean ways:

  1. Focus on value.
  2. Start where you are.
  3. Progress iteratively with feedback.
  4. Collaborate and promote visibility.
  5. Think and work holistically.
  6. Keep it simple and practical.
  7. Optimize and automate.

Incumbent provider inertia - Enterprise infra is signified by large-scale technology service providers with armies of people providing outsourced services. However, incumbent providers are not incentivized to reform and be more efficient - be it the adoption of conventional automation tools or even the emerging A.I.-based solutions such as large language models. It pays to pick a new player with a fresh pair of eyes and tools to transform the way you transform, manage, and run your infrastructure.

In summary, let enterprise infrastructure be the game changer that your business needs. Doing so will help you build moats against the competition, be more responsive to your customers, and do all this without blowing up your budget! Move from operating behind a queue (typically, a ticket on ServiceNow or a similar tool) towards being customer-focused, collaborative, and value-seeking.

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