IT Focus Area: digital
December 1, 2015
The Building Blocks of Application-Centric IT
Back in the late 20th century, the mission of information technology (IT) was mostly about deploying and maintaining the hardware and software infrastructure for a company. Today, IT plays a much more strategic role in the organization: Using technology to transform and streamline business processes in order to enhance competitive position.
Most critical business processes today revolve around IT applications. The success and competitiveness of any business depends to a large degree on how efficiently it can deploy applications that empower their employees. Unlike IT, most business users don’t care what hardware is used to host their applications or what infrastructure is used to deliver them. They just expect their applications to perform, to conform to the way they work, and to be easily accessible and usable on whatever device works best for them.
To fulfill these requirements and keep businesses and their employees competitive, productive, and motivated in a time of shrinking budgets and growing expectations, IT has had to shift from an infrastructure-centric focus to an application-centric focus.
The building blocks of an application-focused IT strategy are illustrated through an application optimization framework.
Job one is to rationalize and then categorize the company’s applications. Through mergers and acquisitions, and over the course of many years, IT departments take on the responsibility for supporting a large number of applications. Because of this sprawl, companies may find that they have up to 100 different applications serving a single purpose, such as backup and disaster recovery. In fact, it is easy for companies to lose control of the number of applications they are supporting, and to discover after an audit of their applications that they are supporting more than twice as many applications as they thought.
By rationalizing and consolidating their applications, IT can identify redundant applications and develop a strategy to consolidate their workload onto applications that are well aligned with their business strategy. This consolidation, in turn, frees up resources to pursue more strategic initiatives. Effective consolidation of applications requires working closely with the business units to ensure their interests are accurately represented during the process, and to get an accurate picture of which applications are mission-critical to keep the business competitive, which ones help the business perform day-to-day operations, and which applications may actually be consuming scarce resources without providing an adequate return to the business. Companies that have effectively administered this process have been able to free up significant resources.
Application Placement in a Hybrid Data Center
Once a company has aligned its applications with its business objectives, the next step is to ensure the performance of the selected applications is optimized in its data center. Today, organizations and business processes run on applications that integrate scores of components, from Web servers to application servers, databases, and third-party services such as credit card fraud detection. Components of the applications may reside in a client-owned data center (on a private cloud or on legacy systems), with a third-party cloud service provider in a public cloud, or a combination of all three in the hybrid data center model. An important goal of an application-centric approach is to determine the best placement strategy for each application component in order to maximize performance, cost effectiveness, and efficiency.
Wherever they reside, application components must interact with each other rapidly, efficiently and in the right order. Much of that interaction happens over a combination of local area networks (LANs) and wide area networks (WANs). Application performance also depends not only on servers, services, and placement, but also on network architecture, capacity, and performance, both inside and outside the data center and the organization.
Application Consumption by End-Users
Applications are consumed by end-users who depend on them to be productive. Therefore, the effectiveness of an application can’t be determined without considering its impact on the end-user. If the end-user experience isn’t satisfactory, users will reject the application and find alternate ways to get their jobs done. Worse yet, they will make additional investments in tools and processes to accomplish the functions the original application was supposed to perform, resulting in costly and redundant shadow IT organizations.
As recently as five or six years ago, applications were almost always consumed at a deskbound personal computer (PC) on the office network. In the most competitive organizations today, the new workspace is much more likely to be wherever the user happens to be at any given moment (e.g., at the office, at the airport terminal, at a coffee shop, on the street, or at home), and on any of a variety of mobile devices. Most users today employ three or more computing devices—including desktop PCs, home PCs, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and phablets—and increasingly expect to access their work-related applications from anywhere and on any of these devices. College graduates entering the workforce today are demanding (and are receiving) a flexible work arrangement that fits their lifestyle. They expect the same level of application performance whether they are working at corporate headquarters or in their coffee shop. Employers who seek to tap into the creative energy these employees bring to market must be prepared to deliver that level of performance.
Finally, the application user experience today typically transcends a single user. More and more projects involve collaboration with teams, business partners, contractors, and other entities over the Internet, email, unified communications, and social media. Increasingly, applications are useful only if they integrate effectively with all layers of the enterprise: collaborative, unified communications, workflow, and social.
Optimizing the Extended Application
Put it all together and effective application optimization depends on a wide variety of capabilities all working together seamlessly.
It requires placement of applications where they can deliver the best performance most efficiently: in either a public cloud, private cloud, or on a legacy server. It requires optimizing the combination of networks required to reliably transport the application to the end-user’s workspace, regardless of where that happens to be. It requires delivering the application seamlessly to the end-user on the device of their choosing.
Historically, mobile access, workflow integration, and social and collaborative layers evolved separately from the core application itself. Consequently, many critical work functions are put on hold “until I get back in front of my PC.” In order to succeed today, however, application-focused organizations must develop a strategy that integrates the end-user experience into the provisioning of applications. Jeffrey Moore calls it systems of engagement. It is a concept that states that IT applications must capture and optimize the moment of engagement between users, the application, and the business, and harness technology to empower that moment. Any organization that does not connect these dots runs the risk of poor adoption of applications by end-users, resulting in loss of revenues and competitive position in the marketplace.
The New Network
The delivery of virtual applications to mobile users is driving a profound transformation in network architecture. Consumption of an application no longer means delivering an application from a static, physical server to a static, physical end-user. It now means delivering an application that may reside in a public or private cloud to a mobile end-user using a variety of devices. Therefore, network agility and intelligence become top priorities. Just as servers evolved from fixed hardware to agile, dynamic virtual software that shrinks, grows, and moves across physical servers in the data center, today’s hardware-based networks will have to evolve into more agile, virtual and application–aware networks. When fully realized, software-defined networks (SDN) will have the centralized intelligence to analyze applications’ needs dynamically and adjust traffic flows, bandwidth reservation, and other network resources to deliver optimal performance of the application.
With their highly mobile users and applications, wireless providers have been on the forefront of investment and innovation in software-defined networking. Even in enterprises today, controller-based SDN is starting to make some inroads. For example, Cisco’s Intelligent WAN (IWAN) architecture incorporates network intelligence to allocate application data traffic to multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) or a virtual private network (VPN) over the Internet dynamically, based on application priority and resource requirements. Effective use of IWAN can slash MPLS costs by as much as 40 percent. As wireless performance improves and companies refresh networking equipment, wireless networks are replacing large parts of the fixed network infrastructure—allowing even office workers to roam the office environment at will and stay connected.
Network agility will also depend on robust application monitoring at every step of the application flow across the network. Application performance in a static laboratory environment may be very different from performance in a real-world environment, with end-users scattered across the globe. If the network can’t identify performance bottlenecks and help IT optimize performance quickly, the user experience will suffer. Therefore, holistic network application performance monitoring solutions that can track performance in a dynamic, virtual IT environment will become more and more important in the application-centric IT organization. Performance analytics will also play a role in identifying the root cause of application performance issues that traditionally plague IT.
Finally, an essential element of optimized application performance is security. The network perimeter continues to disappear as companies embrace the hybrid data center concept and further enable a mobile workforce. Therefore, security policy must be concerned with protecting sensitive applications and data on many different kinds of devices, including servers, networks, PCs and personal mobile devices. Security has to be not only application and data focused, but also robust and effective without disrupting the user experience. History has shown us that compliance is not enough in an environment of continually evolving advanced persistent threats and increasingly sophisticated application exploits. Virtually all of the major breaches that occurred within the last two years have happened within organizations that have been deemed to be in compliance with the relevant industry security standards.
An Application-Centric Perspective Is Key
In an ever-evolving IT landscape, businesses face formidable challenges. To survive and effectively compete in a mobile, application-dependent environment, enterprise IT will have to evolve to an application-centric perspective. Businesses can optimize application performance by developing strategies for the rationalization, placement, transport, consumption and security of the applications they support. In doing so, they will not only streamline processes and empower users, but also position their organizations to fully utilize the exciting changes in the IT industry that lie ahead.