In-Depth

Infrastructure Optimization for IT

Infrastructure Optimization is Microsoft's shot at an IT maturity model. It may not be a panacea, but it can help streamline IT operations.

For many, IT is a game of chasing and fixing problems. Run out of storage? Buy a new disk. Apps too big? Get more servers. The result is often too much hardware and software from too many vendors with too many configurations. Infrastructure optimization aims to alleviate those headaches.

For years, vendors like IBM Corp. and integrators like Electronic Data Systems Corp. have gone into large shops and holistically examined their IT systems. They would offer a plan to simplify, create efficiencies and make them more productive. In the last two or three years, Microsoft has also entered the game with its infrastructure optimization (IO) model, a system for analyzing the state of your shop, devising plans to make it more efficient and to better support business goals.

The IO model encompasses Core Infrastructure, Business Productivity Infrastructure and Applications Platform Infrastructure (which also covers application development). The most mature model is Core IO, which also looks at identity management, device (desktop and servers) management, security and networking, data protection, and IT and security processes.

IO isn't just about technology meeting business goals. It's also IT processes. Part of this is going back through concepts like Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). Microsoft embraces this idea through the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF), which is part of the IO message. "It's not that you get some product and magically you're there. It's a combination of people, processes and technology," says Samm Distasio, director, worldwide IO strategy, enterprise priorities for Microsoft.

The Microsoft Operations Framework

Infrastructure Optimization is linked to the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF), which is a model established to ensure that Microsoft-based systems are manageable, reliable and supportable. The MOF itself is based on the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

MOF is similar to Carnegie-Mellon's Capability Maturity Model Integration, which focuses on organizations, processes and people. Instead of hardware and software, MOF seeks to align IT services and people with key business goals. Taken together, the two models cover the major issues an IT shop must deal with.

What Exactly Is IO?
Infrastructure optimization seeks to define the maturity of an IT organization. By mature, Microsoft means modern, advanced and effective. Microsoft isn't the first to come up with this concept. In his report "Optimization Model Structures Sales Efforts," Directions on Microsoft analyst Paul DeGroot describes how Carnegie-Mellon University devised such a model in 2002. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a four-stage maturity model of its own, and Gartner Inc. has embarked on a similar effort.

"The general concept of software maturity behind Microsoft's version of IO is reasonably mature. I traced it back to work done at Carnegie-Mellon in the early '90s or late '80s (when it was called the Capacity Maturity Model), although Microsoft attributes IO to a different origin. Just shows that great minds were thinking alike around that time," says DeGroot. He goes on to explain that the Carnegie-Mellon model focuses largely on the processes of planning and development while Microsoft emphasizes using software.

Microsoft didn't develop its IO model in a vacuum, and fully credits its predecessors. Besides working with Gartner Inc. and MIT, Microsoft polled more than 10,000 customers to build the model. According to "Infrastructure Optimization at Microsoft," the company's white paper on the topic, "61 percent [of companies] are in a manual, reactive state of IT management and maintenance, and 36 percent have limited automation and minimal process and knowledge capture of the environment (still very reactive). Only 3 percent can be characterized as being driven by a well-managed, high-security infrastructure managed by a set of policies and operations with a current state of technology deployment and implementation."

IT and Security Process
[Click on image for larger view.]
IO is neither a product nor a panacea. "It's only a model, and a very theoretical one at that," says DeGroot. "An organization needs to build its own infrastructure model and then fill it with data, so coming up with a really optimum model that tracks the right inputs and collects the right data will probably take years and a lot of ongoing maintenance. Although I think it's a useful concept for customers, I wouldn't trust any particular vendor to nail it down."

For some, it takes a while to get their arms around the IO concept. "Microsoft can so quickly overdo something that you lose sight of the useful principles behind it. It took me at least a year, including some fairly intensive research, to cut through it," DeGroot says.

Others find the model clear and straightforward, even if it's a tough sell initially.

"I'm skeptical of these theoretical models, but this [IO] was the first time I said to myself, 'This is the way I think IT is doing their business today,'" says Gunnar Thaden, CIO of TUV NORD Group.

The difference is the rigor and concreteness of the IO model -- particularly the extensive questionnaires that form the basis of any IO analysis, Thaden says. "IT people are very fact based. [With IO] you had a lot of questions you had to answer very concretely," he explains.

The Four Stages of IO
The four levels of IO are Basic, Standardized, Rationalized and Dynamic. A company moves up a level when they've installed and use the technologies that support the functions and business objectives the model calls for in each level.

The 4 Stages of IO

You can judge the maturity of an IO initiative by looking at it in four stages: Basic, Standardized, Rationalized and Dynamic.

Basic: Where most IT organizations start and, unfortunately, where many remain. A Basic-level IT shop adopts technology on an as-needed and ad hoc basis. When a Basic shop runs out of processing power or storage space, it tosses in a new server from the lowest-priced vendor of the week.

A Basic shop will often buy software based on price and features, and not consider how applications integrate with its infrastructure or fit in with a long term architectural vision. Any management is done manually. Microsoft calls a Basic IT shop a "cost center." Some are better termed "sink holes."

Standardized: Although only one level above Basic, Standardized is a huge step up. As the name indicates, thought goes into buying products that adhere to industry standards and fit into an overall vision of how things ought to work together. Standardized shops are managed, but they lack the automation of higher-level shops. While a standardized IT shop is still a cost center, Microsoft labels it a "more efficient" cost center.

Rationalized: Here IT systems are managed, well-automated and the company has gone through the process of consolidating key pieces like servers and storage. IT is considered a strategic asset and a "business enabler."

Dynamic: In this upper-level stage, IT is a "strategic enabler" and management is "fully automated."

The hierarchy of these levels isn't meant to suggest that all companies should strive to hit the Dynamic level. It's too expensive for some smaller companies, and not worth going beyond Standardized. In short, IO makes IT more efficient, more productive and able to generate real business value.

Here's how it works: Often working with a partner or a Microsoft rep, IT goes through an elaborate questionnaire. The answers help drive the goals. Microsoft then maps the objectives to its own products, and offers an array of choices to help reach those goals. In Security and Networking (part of the Core IO model), for example, there are five Microsoft products a Standardized company might use. There are nine for a Dynamic company.

Even if you don't invite Microsoft or a partner in for an IO consultation, you still can tackle the fundamentals. Here's an approach suggested by analyst firm IDC in a paper published by Microsoft:

"Minimize the number of configurations, such as locked down for temp workers and more open for top execs, and only create additional PC images when absolutely necessary. Related to this, IDC in general recommends locking down PCs so end users can't make changes, and centralizing system updates and changes. Further, these PCs should be managed by a directory; in Microsoft's case, let's make that Active Directory, not just for authentication, but to also use Group Policy for desktop and software configurations."

IDC also advises reducing the use of directories from third-party app companies, and using one systems management tool. Microsoft naturally promotes its own tools, Systems Management Server and Microsoft Operations Manager -- now System Center Operations Center 2007 -- as leading to higher levels of maturity.

The ROI of IO
There are two ways IO can produce a positive return on investment (ROI). One is the classic approach of saving money by building efficiency.

In the Microsoft white paper, IDC claims that a PC costs $1,320 to support in a Basic IT shop, $580 in a Standardized shop, and $230 in a Rationalized shop. It doesn't offer figures for Dynamic shops. IDC maintains that overall IT costs will fall 15 percent as shops move from Basic to Standardized, and 10 percent as they move from Standardized to Rationalized.

The real goal of IO, however, isn't reducing costs. As you move up the ladder, there's less focus on spending and more on IT creating business value. There's good news here -- IT is already contributing to the business. IDC surveyed business managers at 413 companies and found 70 percent believe that IT has spurred innovation. Unfortunately, only one in five business managers find the IT folks themselves to be "initiators in business strategies."

Reader Response
Redmond solicited opinions about IO from our readers. We found that most IT pros weren't aware of the model, but there was more than a bit of skepticism.

"It seems to me that many companies bought into [Software Assurance] only to find release after release delayed or not released at all, giving Microsoft a lot of money for not delivering," says Les Newport, an application developer and Redmond reader. "Now Microsoft wants us to trust them to take an objective and holistic view of our shop? Are you kidding me?"

Other IT pros question the objectivity. "I would feel much more comfortable with IO if an independent lab performed the service. Or at least [evaluated] the IO service for conflict of interest issues," says Redmond reader Dan Dionne.

Another anonymous reader echoed Dionne's thoughts: "I can really see Microsoft coming in and saying, 'Yup, you need an Oracle database, running on Sun boxes under Linux, with SAP as your enterprise software."

DeGroot understands these concerns, but also sees Microsoft's point of view.

"Theoretically, [IO] embraces all of them [other models and vendors]. Microsoft did some work last spring that made the APO [Application Platform Optimization] and BPIO [Business Productivity Infrastructure Optimization] models less Microsoft-specific," he says.

"There's a terribly important psychological reality here -- if you get to ask the questions, you can control the customer's agenda," DeGroot continues. "I think customers need to fill in the blanks themselves. I wouldn't count on Microsoft or any other vendor to deliver a completely optimized infrastructure, or to assess competitor capabilities accurately, even if they tried."

Some IT professionals, like TUV NORD's Thaden, heartily embrace the IO concept. In looking through Microsoft's case studies, it's clear that IO doesn't have to entail sweeping, immediate changes. Much of the IO work -- like standardizing and automating desktop image rollout -- is done piecemeal. This was the case with Austar, an Australian TV company with more than 800 employees.

For the National Water Commission in Mexico, the problem was a mix of IT infrastructures, each built by local offices. The infrastructure optimization answer was to centralize and standardize around Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft server applications such as Exchange and ISA. The Water Commission now expects to reduce infrastructure maintenance costs by more than 70 percent.

An IO Believer: The TUV NORD Story

TUV NORD Group has been heavily reliant on Microsoft technologies since 1999. The 150-year-old German technical services provider handles safety issues like registering motor vehicles and issuing driver's licenses. Because of its long history with Microsoft, TUV is well-suited to do long-term measurements on the effectiveness of Microsoft software and the IO model.

TUV's need for IO-style computing began back in 1999 when the company acquired two organizations, one used Banyan Vines and the other used Windows NT. TUV determined its best move was to transition the whole organization to Windows 2000 and strive for a more homogenous environment.

The move to Windows 2000 was a great success. TUV's next major step was to implement the Systems Management Server (SMS) suite in 2002. This was part of its strategy of using Microsoft desktop, productivity, server, messaging, database and management tools instead of individual best-of-breed selections.

"We have totally homogenized our infrastructure. It is more or less a 100 percent Microsoft infrastructure," says Gunnar Thaden, CIO for TUV NORD. "The key is not Microsoft. The key is that we have concentrated [our systems]."

The major exception is SAP, which is now accessed via Duet, an Office/SAP interface.

Thaden finds the single vendor approach is easier and more comfortable to manage.

"In my early days, I worked as an IBM MVS programmer. That was the good old times. It was working with one single administration."

TUV also moved to Windows Server, and implemented Active Directory across the whole enterprise in 2002. At the same time, it moved to a single configuration management and software distribution solution.

Much of the motivation for TUV's drive to IO was economic. After concentrating on a single vendor, TUV studied total cost of ownership and found it was falling.

"In 2006, we did another measurement, and saw a dramatic reduction in costs," Thaden says. "We don't talk about cost reduction now. We only talk about what is our value for the business."

TUV has moved steadily through the IO maturity stages. In 1999, the company was at the Basic level. It moved to the Standardization level in 2002, and achieved the Rationalized level in 2006.

TUV takes a unique approach to desktop software deployment and imaging, which is part of the IO model. "[About] 90 percent of laptop error rates have to do with disk crashes. When we lose a laptop, our technicians lose a whole day," Thaden says. "Disk crashes don't just happen in one second. Through SMS and Vista, our service line can send an alarm to the user that the disk will crash in two days. Then they send out a new laptop before the old one fails."

TUV also lets users know how their machines are doing. Through Vista gadgets, like speed measurement, both users and IT can see their PC's status. "Through all these automatic tools, we measure the log entries, RAM and disk, so the user knows his PC is OK," he says.

One of TUV's latest IO-centric stratagems concerns SharePoint. "We have terabytes of SAP data, which we now combine with the unstructured data, such as Excel, Word, PowerPoint and Outlook. With SharePoint 2007 and SAP records management, we can combine those," Thaden says.

TUV's other big initiative is Unified Communications, which it began moving to two-and-a-half years ago. Now TUV is also looking at Service Desk, which is in beta. If this is better than HP OpenView, TUV may well make that move as well.
Even though Microsoft itself only hovers between Standardized and Rationalized, TUV believes it has already achieved the Dynamic level. "We still have a roadmap. We have not proven it, but I am 100 percent sure that we are already Dynamic," Thaden says.

As a Dynamic enterprise, the IO has fundamentally changed the way TUV thinks about IT.

"2006 was the last time I talked about cost reduction. I no longer talk about costs with my board, customers or whatever. It is all about bringing business value," Thaden says. "My dream is that after Dynamic is the level where we are proactive instead of being reactive." -D.B.

Third-Party Play
Microsoft takes great pains to make sure the IO model is as vendor-neutral as possible. All of the up-front questions are about general technologies, not specific products. After setting goals, they're mapped to actual products, most often from Microsoft.

"Never do you get to the point of 'this is the right or wrong product.' You look at the capability that the infrastructure or platform could provide. Of course, at some stage we'll talk to you about what Microsoft has, but that isn't the point up until that stage," says Simon Witts, corporate vice president of Microsoft's enterprise and partner group.

ISVs can be part of the plan. Although there's no formal program, Microsoft works with key software vendors and guides them on how to make their products part of the IO ecosystem. There are specific categories that third parties fit into, as well.

Microsoft's Own Dog Food
Microsoft is also recruiting VARs, resellers and systems integrators. Microsoft works with its own partners, as well as large systems integrators such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and EDS, which each have IO-style models. Using more than one advisor leads to a fuller, more-impartial view of the overall infrastructure.

Microsoft uses IO itself to drive both product and IT strategy. Using IO to examine its product line, says DeGroot in his IO report, Microsoft saw some holes and filled them by acquiring companies like DesktopStandard for Active Directory management, AssetMetrix for asset management and Softricity for application virtualization.

Microsoft also applies IO to its own IT organization that supports some 80,000 employees scattered from Redmond to Europe, China and beyond. Much of Microsoft's own IO work centers around imaging.

"Microsoft IT has built a number of tools to apply to all images at once, regardless of hardware, enabling it to apply software updates to images whenever necessary. Microsoft IT recognizes that there may be cost savings by reducing to one image, but it maintains that smart use of its five images saves costs," says the company in its IO white paper.

IO is a rich and detailed model, and well worth the time it takes to fully understand it. Don't go with a single source for any maturity model, say the experts, and don't automatically believe every positive ROI model thrown your way. Be realistic about what you can achieve.

More Information

An Array of Optimization Models and Services

CMMI: Carnegie-Mellon is one of the earliest developers of an IT maturity model. Its model, devised by the university's Software Engineering Institute, is called CMMI or the Capability Maturity Model Integration (originally just Capability Maturity Model). On the surface, this model is more complex than Microsoft's software-driven model, as Carnegie-Mellon deals largely with organizations, processes and people.

MIT: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Information Systems Research has a four-level IT operating model. While Microsoft's IO moves in a linear fashion from lowest to the most advanced level, MIT's model bounces around. Here are the levels of the MIT model:

  • Diversification: This is quite similar to Microsoft's Basic level with minimal integration and standardization.
  • Unification: Here there is both maximum integration and standardization.
  • Coordination: This level has great integration, but poor standardization.
  • Replication: Here IT has poor integration, but great standardization.

IBM: IBM's IT Transformation and Optimization Consulting Services can help IT create a blueprint to simplify the infrastructure, respond to shifting market conditions, align IT with business objectives and even change corporate culture.

EDS: EDS, which has a long history of IT consulting and implementation, has an array of services under its Infrastructure Services umbrella; from Advanced Meter Infrastructure Solution (which focuses on automating current manual processes) to Data Center Modernization and Workplace Productivity.

HP: HP has a rich set of offerings called HP Infrastructure Services that include desktop lifecycle, printing, networking, SOA, mobility, consolidation and more. -D.B.

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