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The Three Faces of IT

by Mark Harris Mar 23, 2022

The “IT” function has been alive and well for over more than half a century. In fact, if you trace Information Technologies all the way back to the earliest IBM ‘proof of concept’ machines that were installed for corporate operations, you’ll land in 1952… 70 years ago! Overall in those years, and as computer technology became more scalable, approachable, and affordable, the role of IT has become entrenched as the central part of every organization’s business support functions. Today, even Pete’s Pizza in Poughkeepsie uses some form of computerized payroll and time-management solution. All of this is now possible as technology has been adapted to address the very big and the very small…. all at a price that makes sense for each use case.

Over those decades, the scale and complexity of IT have driven three main specializations that most IT professionals have aligned themselves to, based on their interests and experience:

  • Delivering the Critical Facilities needed to house computing equipment. It is sometimes characterized as brick and mortar of IT or sometimes referred to as the real estate, and includes the structures themselves, as well as the robust and efficient power and the cooling required by all of the active gear that will be housed inside it.
  • Delivering the hybrid infrastructure active componentry. This is where the rack-mounted devices live, and includes everything from the servers, storage, and switches to the routers and firewalls and usually consists of rows of racks filled with devices that are mounted and cabled together.
  • Delivering the applications that the business needs typically includes hundreds of thousands of applications for a large enterprise, each designed to manage the flow of information, provide access to details, compute results or store information for subsequent usage.

Now one of the dirty little secrets of IT is that the three layers have historically worked independently from one another, with unconnected goals and metrics. It’s true. The vast majority of the critical facilities professionals would be hard-pressed to provide any level of detail about the business work that was being done inside their ‘real estate’. And the computing, storage, and networking professionals would also struggle to tell you in detail what applications were running, and what specific work was being done by those applications. And the application designers and architects treat the infrastructure as an endless reservoir of essentially free computing resources.

It’s because each has a metric that is entirely within its unique span of control. In the case of the critical facilities team, they focus on the availability of square footage, the distribution of megawatts of power, and the delivery of tonnes of cooling. And the NetOps, DevOps and ServerOps infrastructure teams will focus on server availability and utilization, memory consumption, networking interconnect performance, and terabytes of data being stored. All great metrics, but only indirectly connected to the real goal: providing users with the information they need in a timely manner and at the right cost.

The IT function is now changing, but ever so slowly… IT operations is now struggling with what it takes to think differently and to approach IT problems smarter than they did before- and always in the bigger context of the impact on the business. It’s no longer acceptable to repeat the same old processes that have been in place for years, just because “it has always worked in the past”. Remember, most of those last 70 years were much simpler times for IT, and manual and labor-intensive tasks were the norm.

I am happy to say that things are not that bad today, but many IT professionals and their dated processes are still challenged to directly tie their domains to the business it supports. With the three faces of IT still very prevalent, common goals are important. And it all starts with understanding that data centers support infrastructure, and infrastructure supports applications, and applications support business. Keep each one of these layers aligned with the common goal of servicing your customers and constituents at the right cost and you are well on your way to delivering IT the way it is needed today.