Businesses are drowning in data and IT groups need to find the right technology to gain insights to proactively monitor and troubleshoot system issues, deal with security threats, and provide seamless technology services in real time.
Doing this goes a long way towards creating a culture of continuous delivery and insights. This is a culture where the true value of information – often hidden in machine-generated data – is successfully tapped and analysed to enhance the customer experience and gain a competitive advantage.
IT leaders recently gathered at two separate events in Sydney and Melbourne to discuss how they are improving their organisation’s operational intelligence by gaining a real-time understanding of what’s occurring across their technology infrastructures. The events were sponsored by Splunk.
Achieving continuous delivery is as much, or more, about cultural and process change as it is about technology, says Snehal Antani, CTO at Splunk.
“Most DevOps programs are stalling because of religious debates with those that believe in ITIL and segregation of duties. In IT, we’re not in the business of selling religion, we’re in the business of selling candles because every religion needs candles.
“Why wait until the end of a software release to check the code for security exposures? What if we could check the code every day, every hour, or upon every check-in?” he asks.
Antani says that regardless of which religion you subscribe to – Agile, Waterfall, DevOps or ITIL – the ability to catch problems earlier in the software development cycle, avoiding surprises late in the project, is appealing to all.
“That becomes the first candle. String many of these types of candles together in an automated process, and without getting dragged into a religious debate, you’ve created the technology and process foundation for continuous delivery,” says Antani.
This automated process, he says, generates a tremendous amount of machine data that can be aggregated, correlated, synthesised and visualised. This enables CIOs to make decisions in real time versus making decisions on last month’s data.
“These insights create transparency and transparency leads to a data-driven culture focused on continuous improvement. The organisation stops saying things like ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ and starts listening to the data.”
Engineering and construction firm, MWH, is in the early stages of its continuous delivery journey, says global director, IT service delivery, Giovanni Ambrosini.
Ambrosini says the organisation has begun to embrace the concept of gathering machine-generated data and using this to enable and execute machine-to-machine automation.
“As I’m responsible for service delivery so we are beginning to use the machine-generated information to assist in forecasting of capacity planning and predictive events to ensure continuous business system availability.”
But as soon as he mentions machine learning both the IT group and business users become sceptical.
“On one hand, they are very interested, and on the other, concerned about the potential implications it has for them. We are still in the early stages of our deployments, and we have elected to have our efforts targeted on specific IT and business applications. This is intentional, we need to prove our concept and build trust within IT and the business.”
Christopher Topp, director of IT at Luther College, says that given the explosion of apps and connected resources, a realisation of true real-time visibility into what is going on has been underway for some time.
“While it’s work in progress, these insights will allow us to further enhance our availability and product offerings. Users can also gain an insight into the operational aspects of the systems if they wish. But in today’s world, invariably they need 100 percent uptime.”
Clive Bailey, senior manager, business systems and IT at disability services provider, Sunnyfield, says the organisation is ‘pretty close’ to continuous delivery.
He says the only time the organisation needs to take systems or networks down is for major upgrades or when its WAN provider loses network links.
“Continuous delivery is a business imperative as we operate an around-the-clock service to a significant portion of our business. Our staff need constant access to client information to be able to deliver services and manage risks,” he says.
“At this time, we are not analysing machine data except in a very basic form. We have, however, recognised that this is an essential requirement as we move into the competitive world of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) both from a marketing perspective as well as enabling us to better manage our service delivery and bottom line.”
Using data to improve operational effectiveness
A key theme that came out of both events is that when it comes to data analysis, IT teams are ready to deliver insights but users don’t know what questions to ask.
Splunk’s Antani says there’s tremendous value hidden in data and agrees that the challenge is asking the right questions.
He says IT organisations that operate with commercial intensity have the business domain knowledge and business relationships necessary to understand what questions to ask of the data. These are organisations that have evolved IT from a back office function to a core part of the value delivered to customers.
“The lines between business and IT must truly be blurred to successfully leverage data as an asset and drive material business impact for the organisation. However, the challenge is earning a seat at the table, creating those relationships and business expertise,” he says.
Is cost a factor?
The disruptive companies that the IT industry envies started off with few resources, both people and money, says Antani.
“These unicorns systematically grew their nascent idea into transformational innovation but how did they do it? Scarcity of resources forces focus and discipline and the hardest thing in any given work day for leaders at these companies is deciding what not to do,” he says.
“When I was a CIO, we weren’t allowed to add new headcount nor did we have access to additional budget, yet we were still mandated to drive transformation change to the organisation. We had to focus, be displayed, and operate with scarce resources,” he says.
During this time as a CIO, 90 percent of the cost of a data project was spent on building the plumbing – stitching together the many open source and vendor offerings, says Antani.
“Standardisation, automation, virtualisation, and other cloud principles change the economics of these projects, freeing up a ton of resources that can be redirected towards commercial innovation, and enabling the IT team to no longer have to deal with the plumbing but rather focus on writing code that delivers sustainable differentiation to the business.
“Time and cost are not an excuse. They are a symptom of a fundamentally broken technology foundation that must be fixed. Only with a strong IT foundation can organisations operate with the resources of an enterprise and the agility of a startup.”
MWH’s Ambrosini says cost is one barrier to entry when it comes to data analysis.
“But it is also the business’ understanding of what insights they would like to achieve from the masses of information that is available to them that, at times, can paralyse people’s decision making process,” he says.
Another attendee adds that cost is certainly a major factor as it feels that certain products are currently priced at the top of the “hype cycle.”
A shift in perception
IT groups driving continuous improvement are shifting the way they are perceived by other departments across their organisations.
Continuous delivery accelerates as organisation’s “innovation velocity”, the time it takes to bring an idea from whiteboard to pilot, says Splunk’s Antani. Innovation velocity, with a focus on driving business value, is critical to earning a seat at the boardroom table, he says.
“Often times when IT walks into a meeting with the business, [other executives] think the projector must be broken. IT teams must earn a seat at the table, use technology to drive business value, and evolve from being simply a cost centre.”
One attendee at the healthcare services company says IT has a high standing across the organisation and is being recognised as a key enabler.
“We have moved from providing clinical systems supported by clinical professionals on an ‘ad-hoc’ and local basis to an enterprise-grade IT support approach.
“We have moved from individuals ‘hacking’ add-on software applications to an ‘innovations competence centre’ based on collaboration between clinical experts and IT professionals. It delivers enterprise-grade apps which are secure and high performing as well as a central business intelligence environment leveraging the latest technology.”
Sunnyfield’s Bailey adds that continuous delivery has definitely improved IT’s relationship with the business.
“They recognise that we understand the business imperative and that we have actively worked to improve delivery through major system and network upgrades, involving them as and when necessary,” he says.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.