What really matters in IT today

This is the stuff that counts, that drives the IT industry and keeps us all going

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Networking matters

However, all the great ideas in the world won't add up to any advantage if you don’t have the proper underpinnings to build on. "A well-managed, reliable infrastructure is the foundation for good risk management, good business performance and good agility," Westerman says. "And the network is at the center of that infrastructure."

So, networks really matter. And they become more critical with time according to Metcalfe's Law, the rule coined by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe that says the more people and services that access and rely on a network the more useful it becomes. That effect is even more profound in today’s world of anytime, anywhere, any way access.

"We're funding research that doesn’t come from researchers in our town," Hinkle says, noting that his Web-based infrastructure makes heavy use of WAN acceleration, traffic shaping and application performance monitoring.(Learn more about Application Acceleration and WAN Traffic Optimization products from our Application Acceleration and WAN Traffic Optimization Buyer's Guide.) "The only way to reach them is to provide them with information in real-time anywhere in the world. Our business is set up to provide that information in digital format when people want it and how people want it, whether it’s during the business day or at 11 at night, here or halfway across the world."

The American Heart Association has already seen the benefits of such ubiquitous access. "A lot of the people we serve aren't even in the U.S.; they're researchers from Europe, Japan and Canada requesting grants. Because of the efficiency of our network and Web applications, the base is widening and we're seeing more diverse people requesting grants, and doing research."

Boston's Northeastern University also is using the network to remove the obstacles of space and time.

The school's Northeastern On-Demand initiative is an attempt to virtualize the university experience so the nearly 6,000 students who participate in its cooperative education program would still feel a strong connection to the school. The co-op program sends students out to work in real-world enterprises as part of their course requirements. At any one time, students can be working in as many as 35 different states and 33 foreign countries.

Northeastern On-Demand consists of a Xythos Web-based document repository integrated with desktop virtualization wares that enable the school to provide students and faculty with secure access to not just documents, but also their desktop applications from home, a work site or even from a local Starbucks.(Learn more about Collaboration products from our Collaboration Buyer's Guide.)

"With Northeastern On-Demand, no matter where you are or whatever device you're on, you can continue to work as if you were at your desk here at the university," says Richard Mickool, executive director and CTO of Information Services. "That's the reality of our environment. Research, collaboration and learning doesn't just happen between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on this campus. It's a 7 by 24 thing, and the network facilitates that."

Richard Mickool, executive director and CTO of IS, Northeastern University

That provides the school with an edge. "Are people coming to Northeastern because we've got the pull of this new environment? Doubtful," Mickool says. "But I think people come to Northeastern because of the educational experience, which if you start to peel away the onion includes some of the technology environment and the information access they have. They can still have a rich, learning, collaborative, productive environment no matter where they are, and that's what's important."

Security matters

Networks matter so much, in fact, that a corollary to Metcalfe's Law is in order: As reach increases the value of networks, security exposures grow exponentially because disruption of any one node can potentially disrupt all the others.

And the costs of getting it wrong are staggering. On average, every customer record lost or stolen costs $150, according to experts. So when the loss involves millions of records — 94 million in the case of TJX, the most prominent recent victim — the math is pretty straightforward. But real costs are industry-dependent, and in the financial sector the cost might be closer to $1,000 per customer record breached.

Every company should know, therefore, that security really matters. But many still don’t get it. Consider the fact that few companies encrypt data on laptops, even though on average companies lose 4% to 5% of their laptops each year.

"A lot of them say it's too hard, they don't know how to manage the keys and they aren't willing to encrypt until they have the absolute perfect solution," says Joel Snyder, senior partner at consultancy OpusOne. But that's a recipe for disaster, as TJX and Visa discovered. (Although Visa knew TJX had security problems as early as 2005, it gave TJX until the end of 2008 to get into compliance.)

Good security needs to be proactive, experts say. "When I talk about securing networks, one thing I tell people is, don't let yourself be BlackBerried,” Snyder says, noting that many enterprises were surprised by the infiltration of wireless BlackBerries and then had to quickly cobble together ways to support them. "The IT guys were not out ahead of the curve, trying to ready these services for their executives before the executives asked for them. IT security guys need to get ahead of the parade, not rush to catch up to it."

The American Heart Association’s Hinkle says people resist including security in the beginning of a project because they think it will slow down the process, when the reverse is true. "At the end is when the feet-dragging on security happens, and there's not any buy-in. People need to integrate security to network design upfront."

Tech advances matter

Security is a moving target. But fortunately, new security tools are emerging as fast as new threats. It is one sector where keeping up with tech advances is critical, but not the only sector. While most companies don't want to be on the bleeding edge, they can't afford to lag too far behind because technology advances can change the game. Technology advances matter.

Consider the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). One of the first things ATF agents do when they reach a crime scene is set up a field office with links to headquarters in Washington, D.C., says William (Larry) Bell, deputy assistant director and deputy CIO. But it would always take the phone company 24 hours-plus to install the connections, Bell says, noting that many agents would resort to satellite phones in the interim. "Satellite phones are fine for voice, but we also wanted to push data, pictures and video, so we really needed broadband."

The ATF turned to a wireless service from iPass. ATF field agents are given wireless access cards for their laptops that when activated, search the area for available wireless networks, including Wi-Fi hot spots and a range of wireless WAN services.

"It automatically finds potential connections and automatically connects to the strongest one, and the agent doesn't have to do anything," Bell says. Now instead of waiting for 24 hours, agents in the field can set up broadband collaborative links immediately, anytime, anywhere. 

The success stories surrounding innovative use of new technologies abound, companies realizing business gains using everything from RFID to services-oriented architectures and CRM.

But, to be sure, there are nearly equal the number of horror stories about technology projects that went wrong, or simply never lived up to expectations.

"With new technologies, we have to make sure we're integrating them into the way we manage IT already," Westerman says. "If the technology becomes a bolt-on that takes us in the direction of more complexity, then it's going to hurt us. Does the technology take us to the point where we actually have better structured IT assets? To the extent that something like [service-oriented architecture] can do that, that's great. To the extent that SOA becomes something we do separately in addition to everything else we've been doing, then it's not."

Hinkle says the key is that adoption of new technology must first be spurred by the business, not the other way around. "It's not me saying we need to do WAN acceleration; it's the business saying they need these Web applications to work better, or they want to stream audio and video. And then I look at what it takes, be it WAN optimization, data prioritization, acceleration," he says. "The business makes the objectives, and together we find the solutions to do what they want."

Consumers really matter

Keeping up with technology advances is getting harder with the rise of popular consumer technologies.

More than any other time in networking, consumers matter. Not only have they been at the forefront of recent technology advances — the highest performance wireless LAN products, for example, are emerging in the consumer market before the enterprise — but they also have access to a far greater set of network-intensive tools than at any other time in history. And that makes supporting enterprise users that much more difficult.

"There are consistently rising expectations now," Northeastern's Mickool says. "When people can go to Best Buy and get the latest wireless device, they immediately start to say, 'If I can do this at home, why can't I be doing this at school or work?'"

Mickool says much of his time is spent trying to mimic the consumer experience so his enterprise users have familiar tools. These rising expectations were another catalyst for the school's On-Demand initiative. "Our users find value in these technologies, be it wireless, social networks or what have you, so it becomes our goal to provide a similar technology," he says. "With On-Demand, we took advantage of what's happening in the consumer world, what people have access to and what's going on with the Internet, and incorporated all that in a secure, reliable way into the enterprise."

Gone are the days when IT could dictate what users could and could not use. Today, the most successful, strategic businesses take into account consumer realities as they roll out enterprise applications. "I have this phrase I use with my staff: It's impossible to manage reality — we have to manage to reality. We still have to make smart business decisions, but it has to start with the end user, the customer realities."

If you don't, the users will take it upon themselves — install their own wireless access points, use unsecure collaboration tools, create their blogs — and open the company to unfathomable risk.

Sense of purpose

All of these developments taken together have started to reinvigorate IT - in terms of self worth and job and career security, and obviously that really matters.

"We're on that curve where we're starting to innovate with technology and companies are buying into that innovation. It's an exciting time to be in IT," Hinckle says.

And a lucrative time. Savvy IT staffers that not only know the 1s and 0s but can also architect business-changing applications are in hot demand. There just aren't enough people with the right mix of skills to fill the openings.

Michael Morris, technical team lead and network architect at a $3 billion high-tech company, has seen these changes firsthand, and is working with Cisco to build a new certification that goes beyond the traditional Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE).

"The CCIE in networking is the Holy Grail, but you come to find out that as networks mature and get bigger, and you start dealing with virtualization, MPLS and so on, the CCIE barely scratches the surface," he says. "CCIE teaches you how to configure Cisco routers really well, but it doesn't give you architectural presence. It doesn't help you understand the holistic view of networks and all the things that go into it. It doesn't teach you how to work with people and how to work with application teams and vendors. But that's what the industry needs now."

Morris says people with such architectural skills, coupled with good communications, organization, leadership and motivational skill sets, are in the driver's seat.

"To give you an example, we were trying to hire someone with those skills for an engineering position in the Bay Area in California, and no one would come in for under $200,000, even for an interview," Morris says. "So when you find those people, it's really hard to keep them. You have to pay them a lot because networks are so important now in the overall scheme of things. Over the next few years, as the level of expertise to do networks right increases, the pay is going to jump up even more."

He envisions such network architects as being compensated more on par with directors and vice presidents, where a large chunk of their cash is bonus-based, paid when certain milestones are met.

"Companies need to start looking at the really high achieving individual IT contributors not as regular line employees but as strategic assets," he says. "And they will have to come up with new compensation models to entice those people."

The upshot? "IT matters, networking matters, information matters and people matter," Northeastern's Mickool says. "Our job is to come up with the right combination of these things to make them work and be successful. Today, IT is the enabler of the real business, and the real value."

Cummings is a freelance writer in North Andover, Mass. She can be reached at  jocummings@comcast.net

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