The Ruthless Standardization of IT Services

8 minute read

Editor's Note: Sirius and Forsythe are now one company. Sirius acquired Forsythe in October 2017 and we are pleased to share their exceptional thought leadership with you. 

When automobiles were first introduced around the turn of the 20th Century, their construction was anything but standardized. They were works of art, created by artisans who lovingly crafted each one, start to finish. And like great works of art, no two were exactly the same. This meant when you needed a replacement part, you had to go back to the original artisan. Of course, the other feature they shared with great art was a rarity that made each automobile incredibly expensive.

All that changed when an entrepreneur named Henry Ford wanted to make cars affordable to the masses. Ford came up with the idea of breaking the process of building an automobile into small, easily learned and repeatable tasks that would be performed over and over by the same worker. He modeled his approach after the meat packing industry. He also realized the value of creating a system of interchangeable parts that could be manufactured en masse, including spare replacement parts that could be purchased out of a catalog in the budding “aftermarket.” It was only then that the automobile became affordable to the average American family, allowing it to ultimately replace the horse as the nation’s primary means of transportation.

This same concept of standardization of services and infrastructure is transforming the world of IT. Instead of taking a project-by-project approach, tying up resources to purpose-build components for one-time use, IT is driving toward a model where it becomes the provider of a catalog of standardized services. This model ultimately enables the creation of a new approach to managing enterprise IT infrastructure: the hybrid data center.  

A solid foundation

The hybrid data center is part of a transformational strategy that helps IT organizations evolve where applications should live: conventional enterprise IT systems, on-premise private clouds and third-party off-premise systems. A hybrid data center enables applications to be provisioned faster, consistently, and less expensively. This enables IT to have the flexibility to choose the optimal place to operate their environment. To realize these improvements, organizations should begin by standardizing their processes. Read Steps to the Hybrid Data Center to learn more about the hybrid data center model.

IT organizations see the promise of the hybrid data center to transform their business, and typically want to jump to the automation and orchestration steps. Yet just as an automobile needs a well-designed chassis on which to build the rest of the vehicle, the IT services model also needs a solid foundation to build IT services the business needs. That foundation is standardization.

From purpose-built to interchangeable IT parts

It’s no secret that parts from one automaker are used across several different makes or models within their portfolio. For example, Ford may offer the same base engines for several models of its Ford and Lincoln brands around the world. When the design team is ready to create a new vehicle, they don’t design a completely new engine. They choose from one of the engines that have been standardized within their “service catalog.”

To gain the benefits of the hybrid data center, IT should start from the same premise. They should create a standard catalog of pre-designed services and infrastructure options. Any business unit or IT entity that is responsible for delivering a specific level of service can quickly draw upon this catalog instead of focusing on recreating the individual components. The pre-packaged option provides the mechanism for services that have been optimized and ready for use. The decision becomes which infrastructure service package to choose (e.g., bronze, silver or gold), rather than putting together individual components in a unique, customized fashion each time.

Standardizing the processes, infrastructure and the way you’re going to deliver services by pre-packaging them provides several advantages:

  • Faster time to market. Rather than having to create applications from a blank sheet of paper, much of the preliminary service design and integration has already been done. As a result, standardization removes multiple steps from the overall design process. The packages can be put into a service catalog that provides pre-determined performance and reliability capabilities, allowing business units to subscribe to the service level that fits their needs most closely. In many cases, the business unit ends up with an improved level of service than that which was originally requested for the same cost.

  • Lower cost. Just as with the assembly line for the auto industry, reusable and interchangeable parts provide economies of scale. In other words, you only pay to develop each package once. Then, reuse it multiple times. And, just as it’s far less expensive to buy a mass-produced replacement automotive part than build one on its own, improvements in the standardized packages can be applied across all applications using them for far less than the cost to repair or upgrade individual designs. Through ruthless standardization, an IT organization can unlock capital for innovation. 

  • Smoother path to automation. The old computing saying “garbage in, garbage out” doesn’t only apply to data. This especially applies to processes. In other words, no amount of automation or orchestration can make up for a fundamentally poor design. In fact, it can make a bad situation worse by enabling the problems in larger scale. Standardization ensures that developers begin with infrastructure and IT services that are already known to work. Developers know that the organization can support them predictably, saving many headaches down the road.

  • Easier management. The more disparate systems and products an organization has to manage, the amount of time and personnel required grows exponentially. For example, if one business unit incorporates security product “A” into their design while a second uses security product “B,” the IT organization will need to maintain expertise in both, and support them across all of their infrastructure offerings. Multiply that across all the possible permutations in the IT world. It would be the equivalent of a single automotive service technician trying to service every make, model and year of every vehicle on the road. Standardizing offerings allows the IT organization to focus its efforts on a fixed set of processes and technologies, making it far easier to keep them running optimally. It also requires fewer resources, allowing IT personnel to be reassigned from “keeping the lights on” activities to higher-value projects.  

  • Reduced complexity.In the 1990s, analysts discussed the importance of a multi-vendor strategy in the data center, saying it lowers cost because vendors would compete against each other for the lowest price. This thinking led to unintended consequences: complexity in the data center and high integration costs. Today, it is more beneficial to choose strategic vendor partners and standardize with them. By standardizing servers, network, storage, security and many other parts of the infrastructure, the IT organization can reduce complexity and costs.

Why standardization helps IT operations and procurement

Cloud service providers achieve tremendous economies of scale through standardization. Yet, large-scale standardization does not occur at many enterprises today. The reason: procurement often focuses on capital expenditure (CAPEX) costs rather than total cost of ownership. For example, a procurement team may obtain a 10 percent discount for selecting one IT vendor product over another. However, once the discounted solution is procured, it is then the job of the IT operations team to run that vendor’s product. However, that decision may result in a 20 percent increase in operational expenditure (OPEX) costs for IT operations.

By setting a mandate of standardization, procurement and IT can become more aligned around the common goal of delivering the right service level to the business at the best total cost. This standardization allows IT and procurement to partner, as advisors to the business. They can evolve the role of IT toward a broker of IT services—with full cost transparency and available options for the business—rather than a builder of IT services that may have hidden or unintended costs and risks.

Battling exceptions

Henry Ford once famously said;

"Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it's black." - Henry Ford

While that may be a bit extreme, it does demonstrate the need to limit exceptions. The model “T” was offered in one color, and over time, additional colors were introduced as processes matured and supported the new options.

There will inevitably be cases where IT service packages don’t fit the requirements exactly. For example, as part of their requirements, the business unit may want an application to be provisioned in less than a week, and the service packages may call for two weeks or one day. Rather than creating an exception to the two-week package, however, IT would provide the one-day provisioning offering to ensure standardization is maintained. That way the requirement is met while standardization is maintained.

If your goal is standardization, you have to be ruthless about it. Fight exceptions wherever possible. Only concede to exceptions when there is simply no viable alternative. When you do provide an exception, the service quote should reflect the additional costs of maintenance and support required in order to incent the business unit(s) to choose the standard offering. Otherwise, your standardization program will fall apart quickly. And your path to automation and orchestration will then be enabled. While Ford customers today get more color choices than old Henry offered, it’s not like buying paint at the hardware store. The colors are chosen from a service catalog, just as IT services should be chosen from an IT service catalog.

Standardization is the first step toward the hybrid data center. In Thorough Virtualization of IT Helps Hybrid Data Center Projects Soar, we look at virtualization and its role in creating a better, more flexible path to the hybrid data center. 

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