How IT can convince stakeholders of the value of technology projects

IT professionals must take data centre measures to convince stakeholders of the business value of technology projects. This will help IT emerge as a valuable business resource.

IT always seems to need more money for technology projects, and yet the business side of an organisation rarely understands where portions of large bottom-line costs are spent, or even what the returns on investment should be.

All too often, businesses see the data centre as a cost centre where large amounts of money are swallowed up and where few benefits from the investments are clearly visible. The IT department appears to carry out dark secret ceremonies, and the organisation gains some small, incremental improvement in services, such as provisioning more technical resources, that speed things up for a short period of time until they are subsumed under the weight of the existing workload.

This needs to change if IT is to emerge as a valued business resource and partner. In this tip, technology expert Clive Longbottom outlines the measures IT professionals can take in their data centres to convince business stakeholders that technology projects do bring value and to align IT with the organisation’s larger business objectives.

More business, less geek

IT must evolve as a core facilitator to the business. Professionals should be able to talk in the language the business understands and provide the technical functions and services that help the business with its changing business processes. This requires them to demonstrate how any technical change will impact the cost and risk to the business and how it enables the business to sell more at the same or a greater margin. In addition, IT must show how it can help bring a new product or service to market at a reasonable margin.

The IT department can no longer afford to be seen as a mysterious “black box”. As outsourcing and public cloud become more available and more functional, it could become too easy and worthwhile for the business to outsource IT completely, which would be to the overall disservice of the business and the IT department.

Just how can the IT department ensure that it is viewed positively by the business? And how can the IT team ensure that technology projects are more strategically aligned with business objectives?

IT has to raise its game and stop being seen as techno-nerds

Executives have little real interest in whether the latest IT kit has next-generation Xeon processors; whether it is running a 64-bit operating system; or whether the storage is now based on a highly tiered system with Solid State Drive (SSD), Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (eg, SATA 3.0 or later) and Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI) drives. They want to know how money spent on IT will help them improve their bottom line.

IT has to be a trusted adviser to ensure that key decision makers understand what options are available to them and what risks these options carry against their respective costs. The IT department must enable the business to make a balanced decision based on the right amount of information.

Here are some measures that the IT team can present to the business’s stakeholders and get the go-ahead to execute their pet technology projects.

Shrinking the size of the data centre

Reducing the amount of IT in the data centre has multiple benefits to the organisation. Less equipment means fewer systems administrators, less maintenance and cheaper licencing cost. But the biggest benefit -- amid rising energy costs and increasing government legislation -- is a reduction in energy usage. This is where virtualisation helps. With average server utilisation rates still running at around 5% to 10%, rationalising existing software instances and consolidating these down onto virtualised hardware makes a great deal of sense. However, IT cannot present it in such technical terms to the business. Instead, they should state the savings based on capital expenses, power costs, operational speed and efficiency, as well as space and operating cost. Doing so will enable the business side to trust the IT team more and invest in the changes in order to gain the on-going savings.

Outsourcing selectively and strategically

Outsourcing is rarely an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, outsourcing is often approached as a solution to specific tactical business problems. For example, a simple move to a colocation facility can save costs on building and maintaining a data centre facility, whereas a move to hosting can remove the need for hardware procurement and maintenance. A move to cloud should present a flexible option where resources can be dynamically adapted to meet the needs of the workload and avoid the costs of over-provisioning “just-in-case” resources in an internal data centre. 

A balanced scorecard detailing benefits against risks will present and formalise the issues and allow IT and the business to enter into sensible discussions about proposed outsourcing. Help them understand the pros and cons of such a move by answering questions such as:

  • What workloads is the project suitable for? 
  • What are the data security, business continuity, disaster recovery and legal benefits and hurdles that have to be faced? 
  • What alternative proposals are in place to serve as Plan B in case of the failure of the cloud company? 

Take action to save energy

Changing the way that your data centre is cooled should also be addressed. Consider a data centre running at the industry average power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 2.4. For every watt of energy that drives IT equipment, another 1.4 watts of energy is needed to cool the facility and operate peripheral equipment. But these are capital-intensive optimisations that demand a strong business case.

Again, making an argument to the business in terms of a move to variable-speed CRAC units or free-air cooling may be met with looks of incomprehension. Instead, explain that for a capital outlay of some amount, the energy savings at the data centre will be “X” and will thus pay for the change over some period of time. This is usually all that the business needs to make an informed decision.

If a business undertakes virtualisation first, and certain workloads have been outsourced, there will be a lot less equipment to cool. When combined with more modern advice on running data centres at higher temperatures, you can provide cooling at very low cost means such as free air cooling. This type of approach minimises energy use and avoids the variability of energy costs in the future.

Another tactic to adopt at the server level is a more frequent technology refresh cycle. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially when virtualisation can potentially extend server operating lifetimes. But consider that next-generation servers are often far more power-efficient than previous models. The capital needs for faster server upgrades can often be justified by lower energy costs outlined in a well-stated business case. These are just a few ways that IT can support business efficiency and operational goals.  When combined with a full IT lifecycle management (ITLM) approach, the older equipment can be deprovisioned securely and sold off to offset the capital cost of the new equipment.

Think modular

Finally, you’ve consolidated after outsourcing some aspects of the IT environment, using highly modularised systems may make more sense than a formal build-out of the data centre environment. For example, using pre-populated rack-based modules, fully engineered rows or completely self-contained data centres built inside a standard-sized cargo container can be good for the business.

At the IT level, containerised data centres offer faster time to capability’’. This is because they can help avoid the need for components to be installed in racks, to carry out the configuration efficiently and for pre-provisioning tests. Containerised data centres also help avoid equipment hot spots caused through poor rack design. In addition, wiring is fully structured and controlled and you can deal with interdependencies between different components (such as servers, storage and network switches) without the need for deep engineering knowledge from system administrators. Modular systems also provide full visibility of each module’s energy and cooling needs, so the data centre facility can be more flexible in the speed in which deals with putting new equipment in place.

At the business level, a modular data centre can be more flexible. As business requirements change, racks and rows built in-house need to be continually changed to meet changing needs – often failing to keep up with the speed of change. Modules can be swapped in and out far more easily, particularly in a well-implemented virtualised environment.

Time to release your “inner executive”

Overall, the future of the data centre is changing. Rumours of the death of the corporate data centre are missing the point: It will not die out. Instead, it will become smaller, more energy-efficient, more modular and more responsive to business needs through utilising external IT resources where needed. For IT to receive the investment it needs for its technology projects, it must present itself to the business in business terms – not as arcane, complex and costly tech-speak.

Clive Longbottom is a service director at UK analyst Quocirca Ltd. and a contributor to SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.

This was last published in February 2012

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