Evan Unrue, EMEA Converged Infrastructure Technical Lead, Avnet Technology Solutions
WHAT PROBLEMS IS FLEXPOD™ SOLVING?
Avnet ships pre-engineered Flexpod systems all over the world for NetApp; call it Trade Show Flexpod as a Service. Our primary purpose in this endeavour is to maintain, ship and deploy these Flexpod units into the various trade shows NetApp attends for demonstration and display purposes, and then to educate whoever wants to understand the nuances, architecture, features and benefits of Flexpod. This year, however, was slightly different.
That’s because a solid proportion of people approaching the Flexpod were customers who had deployed Flexpod recently – or not so recently in some cases. This gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions:
- Why did they buy Flexpod?
- Did it deliver what they expected?
- What were they expecting it to deliver?
- How does Flexpod factor into their technology roadmap?
- What pain did it ease, if any?
One recurring theme was that many were so inwardly focused on what they were looking for when they bought the Flexpod, that this fixed reference point shaped how they leveraged the platform. As a result, they hadn’t fully explored the possibilities of what they can now do, with Flexpod on the ground.
Many of these reference points were re-enforced simply by “how they had always done it”. When I walked through the full extent of what they had invested in with Flexpod – things it can do, ways it can be deployed, managed, automated and the strong complimentary technologies from Cisco and NetApp that tie into Flexpod – some really interesting conversations developed around what customers could do next.
For context, the types of organisations I was speaking with were as follows:
- A large media and publishing group with multiple divisions
- A global mining company
- A few service providers
- A company that provides vertically-aligned managed IT to pharma and a few other verticals.
- A number of typical commercial SME outfits (averaging a few hundred to a few thousand users).
CHALLENGES WHICH DROVE THESE COMPANIES TO LOOK AT FLEXPOD™
Why did these organisations buy Flexpod in the first place? The reasons ranged from being fed up of managing failing infrastructure and easing management pain to delivering on a more strategic IT roadmap.
Below are some of the reasons Flexpod customers I spoke with came to explore Flexpod™ as a solution:
Managing an “Accidental Architecture”
Dealing with increasingly unmanageable infrastructure born through sweating assets for too long, tactically replacing failing kit, plugging resource gaps, and in some cases through acquisition of other businesses where they have new infrastructure which has to be stitched into an existing platform.
This cocktail of diversely-branded old and new kit in many cases results in a seemingly endless struggle to keep critical applications up in the face of failing hardware or a constant flow of troubleshooting tasks, as the thin veneer of interoperability grows ever thinner. For the customers I spoke to, the resulting “accidental architecture” consumed so much time to maintain, innovation seemed to be off the table.
Supporting/deploying platforms and applications in the field
One thing was clear. A lack of standardisation was causing real issues around time-to-resolution of support issues, and time-to-deployment of applications and infrastructure. These customers had many platforms out in the field which weren’t necessarily poorly constructed, but the lack of standardisation in configuration, vendor technology and even the way the infrastructure was racked, patched and managed made it hard to apply a procedural approach to conducting a root cause analysis of issues and resolving them in good time.
A few of the companies I spoke with likened deployment of any significant applications to playing Jenga, in that stacking new workloads on creaking and overly-agnostic infrastructure was compounding the “accidental architecture” issue. They had to stitch resources together in increasingly creative ways and tactically deploy infrastructure on the fly. This process is not a quick one and the time it takes to prep everything for these new applications often takes weeks or months.
The IT vs Business Expanse
As NetApp Insight is primarily a technical conference, it was of course mainly attended by engineers, IT Managers, IT Directors and CTOs rather than customer CEOs and CFOs, so admittedly I only heard one side of the story here. However, this side made for an interesting story. A lot of these guys had become accustomed to feeling like “the help”: they were rarely invited to discuss the topics which influenced the demands being pushed onto the IT business; they weren’t asked what IT could do for the business; and the topic of making IT a profit centre rather than a cost centre was completely alien. The business attitude around old and hard to maintain kit is often to let to sweat because “it works, it’s fine and nothing has broken yet” – this divide forces IT into reactive mode.
The Battle with Shadow IT
The group IT Director of one company was faced with a situation where there were three distinct parts of the business, and each had aligned themselves to deploying applications with a different cloud provider for dev and non-critical/non-core applications. This was a struggle for IT as they were losing visibility of the business’ application landscape, competing with external IT providers and at real risk of breaching certain regulations if data was being dealt with on cloud platforms outside their sphere of control.
DID FLEXPOD™ FIX THESE ISSUES?
Flexpod isn’t a magic box with the answer to all companies’ IT struggles, but it does give customers a platform they can leverage to address their issues. There has to be an appetite for business to address the people and process aspects around IT, and most importantly the business attitude towards IT, before any technology is going to offer a long-lasting solution. To put it bluntly, you can buy a new car, but if you’re a bad driver, a new car isn’t going to stop you having car crashes. Much like the relationship between driver and automobile, the driver needs to know where he or she is going, have full control of the vehicle and listen to the engine to know when it’s going wrong. These same rules apply for the relationship between the business and IT.
Starting from the bottom and working up, one thing Flexpod gives many of these organisations is control. Standardisation of hardware and software makes lifecycle management of IT simpler and less painful. Less diversity in the infrastructure means they can manage firmware levels across platforms with decreased risk, hardware interoperability is a non-issue as the components are all certified to work together, no questions asked. Adding new resource aligns to the set standardisation around Flexpod, meaning infrastructure deployments and application roll outs are massively accelerated.
Another by-product of Flexpod’s standardisation is that with everything being a known commodity within the datacentre or across sites, companies can start to apply more efficient root cause analysis procedures with less guesswork around how they troubleshoot issues within their infrastructure. This benefit is compounded further when you consider Flexpod is supported as a single platform, meaning you’re not spending half the day trying to get one vendor to take ownership of the issue as they point fingers amongst themselves.
Ultimately gaining control over your infrastructure means less downtime, less time troubleshooting alerts, and less of your time wasted. This allows more time to deploy people on tasks that actually improve, and don’t just “fix” things.
When the IT organisation moves out of a purely reactive state and has time to be pro-active, they can start to look at how to align closer to the business. In reality, this works both ways – they have to be met in the middle. But without the need to be purely reactive, there is at least time and breathing space to have the important conversations and start to make changes.
Something that one of the organisations I spoke with was looking to deal with was their shadow IT issue. Their roadmap involved leveraging Flexpod to regain some control around their core IT, and over time implement automation elements, such as UCS Director, prime service catalogue and a few others, to start developing a service-oriented and policy-driven approach to how they deliver internal services. Then over time, they could standardise on a set of cloud providers and leverage these same policy-driven approaches to manage how and where things go into the cloud. This would allow the business to consume from their own IT in much the same way they had in the cloud, but IT regains control of the application landscape and ensures they remain compliant where needed.
In summary, Flexpod offers a mechanism to help IT get control of a business’ infrastructure and free up time and money to do things better. Getting to the hub of it, doing things better means delivering services more quickly and seeing faster returns, or rationalising how you do things today and easing operating expenses both in time and man hours. The business is certainly responsible for implementing fundamental changes, but Flexpod is helping many customers execute faster, with less risk and with less pain.
If you’re a partner looking for more information on our Flexpod solution, visit our website: http://avnet.me/fsa