How Does IT Become More Agile?

agilityMy friend Steve Mullaney of VMware is fond of saying that we are entering a time of “new IT or no IT”.  What Steve means is that if IT organizations don’t get notably more agile, that companies will increasingly bypass their internal IT organization and will acquire all or most of their applications and services from cloud service providers.  While there is a fair amount of hyperbole contained in Steve’s pithy statement, it does raise an interesting question:  How does IT become more agile?

The question is particularly interesting because the phrase “agile IT’ gets used so often in our industry, usually without any definition or description of what it means.  While I won’t pretend to give the definitive answer, I will briefly describe a number of architectures, processes, and cultural changes that are key components of how IT becomes more agile.

One of the key characteristics of a traditional IT infrastructure that causes the infrastructure to be both expensive and slow to respond to new requirements is that the traditional infrastructure is hardware-centric and relies on inadequate automation tools.  A software-defined data center (SDDC) represents the antithesis of the traditional IT infrastructure.  Part of the promise of an SDDC is that it will enable applications to dynamically define resource requirements in line with the company’s security, compliance, and performance requirements.  This will, in turn, facilitate more rapid application deployment, and enable IT to be more responsive to business requirements.  Today this is more promise than reality, but the overall trend in the industry is heading in this direction.

It’s possible to look at a SDN as a key component of a SDDC, or to look at SDN on its own merits.  In either case, if SDN is successful in the market it will enable network organizations to be more software-centric than they have ever been.  One manifestation of being more software-centric will be that network functionality will evolve on a software lifecycle — notably shorter than a hardware lifecycle.

While far from being a panacea, in many cases public cloud providers deliver on the twin promises of lowering cost and reducing the amount of time it takes to access applications and services.  As part of becoming agile, IT organizations need to embrace public cloud solutions. This involves a cultural shift whereby IT organizations modify their traditional role of being the primary or exclusive provider of IT services and adopt a role in which they provide some IT services themselves and act as a broker between the company’s business unit managers and cloud service providers for other services.

Process change may yield more agility than any new technology or architecture.  One example of that is DevOps.  Some of the key characteristics that are usually associated with DevOps are that the applications development team writes primarily small incremental pieces of code.  According to a recent Information Week Report, eighty-two percent of the IT organizations that implemented DevOps saw at least some improvement in infrastructure stability, and eighty three percent saw at least some improvement in the speed of application development.

We in IT are very good at adding new functionality, but we are nowhere near as good at retiring legacy functionality.  While there are often very good reasons for this, the bottom line is that we often create the IT version of a ‘tower of babel’ by layering a new technology on top of an old technology and never addressing the shortcomings of the old technology.  Reducing the number of applications that need to be supported and eliminating or replacing legacy equipment and protocols can eliminate the tower of babel phenomena.

At the hundred-thousand foot level, the phrase “agile IT” means that the IT organization provides — directly or indirectly — all of the functionality needed by the business, and doesn’t slow it down or interfere with it in any way.  There is no magic potion or miraculous technology which, unto itself, makes an agile IT function.  There is, however, a combination of architectures, process & cultural changes, and simplification initiatives that can enable IT organizations to become increasingly agile and to be the “new IT” in the phrase ‘new IT or no IT”.