Adopt a collaborative infrastructure strategy

Cloud vendors are making it easier for IT and business people to collaborate on an infrastructure strategy.

Anyone who has been involved with an IT project has, at some point, had to address the topic of servers. Even if business people don't fully understand the concept, they know they need an infrastructure strategy and know the IT folks want the business to make decisions regarding how many servers they need, what kind and for how long. These lead to further questions about performance. IT teams don't always have the answers, though, because...

the applications that will be supported by the servers often don't exist yet. This type of situation leaves IT guessing.

There is a better way. Cloud vendors like Microsoft and Amazon allow IT groups to collaboratively develop an infrastructure strategy. They can even involve business users, allowing them to make decisions in real time with little impact on cost or complexity.

To help illustrate some of these concepts, let's use Microsoft Azure.

Defining needs

Major cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft provide a gallery of products, applications and services that can be enabled and integrated within minutes.

At the outset of a project, there's always a conversation regarding what the business needs to run a new application. There is a litany of things to consider, including how many people will use the application, what sort of response time is required, how often the site needs to be backed up and what operating system will be used. Often, a combination of IT representatives and business folks will answer these questions. Unfortunately, many business people lack the technological background to answer most, if not all, of these questions. As a result, the IT team is left to guess based on their knowledge of the business need.

However, in the case of a cloud service like Azure, many of these questions don't have to be answered accurately. In cloud environments like Azure, a business user or individual in IT can quickly provision the elements of the infrastructure and then adjust the size and scale as needed. For example, in the screenshot below, a gallery shows workloads that can be provisioned.

Azure gallery of workloads

Once a workload is selected, some basic information and initial sizing information is requested. The screenshot below demonstrates the flexibility of choosing larger or smaller virtual machines (VMs). After picking, the workload is provisioned within minutes.

Virtual machine configuration

At any point, the size of the workload can be adjusted up or down based on actual usage or availability of the new business application.

Offloading commodity

One of the more interesting advances to come out of the cloud movement is the ability to buy a service without having to worry about servers at all. In this case, services in the cloud take on more commodity functionality that would traditionally be provided in the infrastructure. With cloud services, IT can simply offload that service to a provider (Microsoft or other) that can handle the one feature needed and charge for its use based on objective criteria like volume.

Take, for example, if a company's application needs to send email. In the new cloud environment, IT buys a service, such as SendGrid, through the Azure store. Once IT adds the service to their subscription, they can provide it through their application.

Major cloud providers like Amazon and Microsoft provide a gallery of products, applications and services that can be enabled and integrated within minutes. The screenshot below provides an example of a set of services that can be provisioned in Azure. These services can be purchased individually or can now be included in existing Microsoft license agreements, which provides flexibility in adding and delivering new services quickly.

Azure services

However, email is just one example of a commodity service that may need to be present. The point is that you can easily offload features that are necessary but not critical, don't represent strategic value to your solution or both. The added benefit is that the business is charged only for consumption; if there's no consumption, there's no cost.

Taking ownership

One of the concerns most firms have is ownership of the infrastructure. In the case of a new application, this would represent all of the cloud-based infrastructure that IT has created thus far. In some cases, IT may want the infrastructure to live on in the cloud. However, there are circumstances where they would want to claw back the infrastructure and host information in their own data center.

In the case of Azure, infrastructure can be pulled back at will. Microsoft uses the same hypervisor technology for on-premises implementations as they do in Azure. This means that if IT wants to host VMs they have deployed in Azure, then they copy the virtual hard disks back into their environment. Or IT can use Microsoft System Center to orchestrate and automate that process.

While all of the VMs can be moved easily, what happens to the services? IT should consider leaving those elements on the VMs. In fact, offloading commodity services to a cloud provider makes excellent sense. There is no backup, no recovery, the company is charged only for consumption and IT can add resources as demand increases. Furthermore, if it's not strategic, as in the case of Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, there shouldn't be a business reason for the company to host that service.

However, whether due to regulatory requirements or comfort, services can be pulled back as well. The process isn't as easy as implementing the rest of the infrastructure strategy, but each function a service might represent should have little to no impact on the overall application as IT transitions to an on-premises or managed hosting replacement. Using the example of email, it's a simple matter of changing the email host.

Collaborative infrastructure is the future

Ultimately, this infrastructure strategy will be the way IT and the business collaborate on new application provisioning. The days of long lead times, unintelligible discussions between IT and business about servers and overpaying for infrastructure are numbered. The concepts and the approach to provisioning the equipment necessary to operate a business application should be included in a discussion about what is needed. As the application evolves, the business should expect IT to dynamically adjust the infrastructure accordingly.

Next Steps

How is the cloud influencing IT infrastructure strategy today?

Microsoft updates Azure cloud strategy

Three questions to ask when considering Microsoft Azure

This was first published in August 2014

Dig deeper on Windows Azure development

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