Decision Maker

How IT Can Operate as Outsourcing Providers

Microsoft is increasingly assuming that IT departments everywhere will move to a services provider model, which essentially means you'll be outsourcing your infrastructures.

The service provider model is not a novel concept. When I worked as a civil servant for the Department of the Navy, where I performed overhaul work on F-14 and A-6 aircraft, there was always concern the public employees were taking work away from the private sector, such as Grumman (now Northrop Grumman), the company that made both aircraft. Every so often, we'd have a competition: We'd get a couple aircraft to overhaul and the Navy would closely track costs, schedules, defects and other metrics. Whoever won the competition would get the contract to overhaul the jets for the next period.

So, basically, the company's own internal team was competing with an outsourcing vendor with the chance the vendor would be cheaper, better and faster, and would win the work away from us. It never happened, of course.

Outsourcers typically strive to their overhead. They charge $x for their service, spend $y providing the service and keep $z, which equals $x - $y. By lowering $y, they profit more $z. One way vendors lower $y is through extensive automation. Order up a new virtual machine (VM) and they don't send a guy into a datacenter to rack a new host server; they push a button and a VM spins up in some datacenter someplace, wherever there's free capacity. I call it the "GoDaddy" model. The same process spins up monitoring endpoints to watch the VM and measure its performance, adds a monthly recurring billing line item in some customer-billing database.

If internal IT is going to act as a services provider, it should use the same automation processes. The problem is, it takes a gob of custom programming and the overhead savings rarely seem to outweigh the investment in building it. Sure, if you're GoDaddy, with a zillion customers coming and going, you do the custom development because it's a no-brainer. But for internal IT, the argument to build in a lot of process automation is less compelling. It's been historically very difficult to have outsourced IT and internal IT "compete" with each other, as I did with Grumman when I was a grease monkey.

Microsoft is changing that equation, though. The problem is that it's doing a horrible job of getting the message out, hence few know it's happening and nobody's clear why Redmond's doing it. But believe me, it is.

The massive six-year investment in Windows PowerShell is starting to pay off for Microsoft. Now, using the latest round of Microsoft datacenter products, it's possible to automate almost anything using Windows PowerShell. This means Microsoft can start building tools atop that infrastructure -- tools such as System Center Orchestrator and Service Management Automation (SMA). That's SMA as in, automating the management of services you provide. Or you can call it, you know, "private cloud," which is what the phrase actually ever meant.

Orchestrator and SMA are built around the concept of runbooks. Think of a runbook as a big three-ring binder that explains how a trained monkey can accomplish some given process within your business, like new user onboarding, spinning up a new VM, implementing a new database, whatever. Detailed, step-by-step instructions, including screenshots, so the cheapest possible labor can implement the process. Now code the runbook in Windows PowerShell and fire the cheap labor, because Orchestrator can manage the runbook for you. And you don't technically have to "code in PowerShell" -- that's just one authoring surface. There are also graphical builders and other tools. SMA in particular, though, is pretty much all Windows PowerShell workflow under the hood.

The point is that you can now start building a services provider level of automation, cheaply. And instead of performing IT processes manually, you just push a button -- or let them run automatically in response to certain events, such as a ticket being opened and "approved" in System Center Service Manager. Now, you can start running IT the same way your outsourced "competition" would do it. You'll have costs associated with IT processes. IT essentially becomes outsourced, even when it's insourced.

It's worth thinking about.

About the Author

Don Jones is a multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s MVP Award, and is an Author Evangelist for video training company Pluralsight. He’s the President of, and specializes in the Microsoft business technology platform. Follow Don on Twitter at @ConcentratedDon.


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