IT management done right

How Babson College syncs its network, systems and software groups

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Virtual server technology is by far the most exciting. With IP SAN connectivity to a virtual server infrastructure, we can reduce our physical footprint in the data center while allowing for ease of deployments of new servers and applications. It wasn't too long ago that we had to plan out hardware purchases. We would work to size CPU, RAM and disk for point solutions. The result would be a longer time to get the hardware ready and it would create a static point in time for individual configurations that would be difficult to change if we either under- or overcalculated the original requirements. Today, we can build servers from home if needed and make changes to the environment virtually. This has reduced our time building servers dramatically.

Name a technology you think is overhyped or underrated?

VoIP can be overhyped in some environments. Most existing conventional PBX implementations have installed wiring and are running on mature hardware. Alongside the existing wired PBX is an Ethernet infrastructure that has been grown from many past standards. These networks often range in capabilities in the following ways: wiring is subcategory 3 to category 6; network hardware with speeds varying from 10 to 1000Mbits; some switches with power over Ethernet and some not. In most cases the wiring closets where network gear is located are not even on UPS, let alone the concept of a backup generator. Uplifting this kind of environment to support VoIP can be cost prohibitive, especially when the wired PBX is doing the job.

VoIP can also be underrated, though. This is most likely the case where the voice and data groups are not being managed closely together. This I believe is the case in a fair amount of IT groups. For some of the reasons mentioned above, conventional ways of thinking prevail to the point of installing costly dual systems in new architecture, when installing an integrated VoIP solution would be the best idea.

What one technology do you wish never existed or that you could have back?

While I don't think that wireless networking should have never existed, I do wish it were introduced in mainstream networking earlier, so that it would be more mature today. The problem is we have applications like peer-to-peer file sharing, which can consume a tremendous amount of resources. Ethernet evolved from a shared wired technology using repeaters to full duplex switched ports to every user. Users got used to this kind of performance, and now they don't understand the sharing again that is inherent to wireless technologies. Wireless will get there. However, the applications we are prepared to run over it today can make the delivery of a well-performing system problematic at best.

How do you keep up on new technologies?

We have regular reviews with our existing vendors and their competitors to find out where they are taking new technology initiatives. We also attend seminars on specific technologies that we have implemented or are planning to implement. These seminars give us an opportunity to see vendors' offerings while hearing how other IT groups have used their solutions to solve their problems. We also connect with other educational institutions to share how we do things and to gain insights into how they do things.

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Andy Lymburner, manager of software servicesHow do you interact with your peers in networks and systems?

In an environment like ours, where small teams are counted upon to continuously innovate while still providing the highest level of support to applications and services that are already in use by our customers, it's critical that we maintain a good relationship with the enterprise-services team that provides both networking and systems. In general, we consult regarding resource allocation if there is a project that requires a hefty commitment from someone on the other team. Otherwise, we are content to allow the members of our teams to work together as often as possible -- and we've never said no when that collaboration is requested. Two members of the applications team are involved with all network and systems planning in order to keep the "gotchas" to a minimum. Team members work together daily to troubleshoot and resolve support requests from our customers and to work through problems uncovered by our internal monitoring of applications, systems and the network.

What are the keys to successfully working with the other groups?

The keys are simple. Good, talented people who respect each other personally and professionally coupled with the understanding that a problem at any point in the service-delivery chain is perceived by our customers to be a failure of the entire IT organization. As a manager, I work to empower each individual to work across team lines to solve the issue at hand and then implement safeguards to keep it from happening again.

Give me a thumbnail sketch of a project where your group worked with one or both of these other groups?

The server-consolidation and -virtualization project has numerous examples of how the groups work together. An ongoing project for over a year, it has been necessary for every application move to be coordinated meticulously to minimize downtime. A typical scenario would involve members of both teams meeting to iron out the details, then coordinating a run-through in our test environment. This run-through is documented thoroughly and the trial runs continue until everything is as smooth as possible. Then the production move is scheduled. Moving applications to new, virtual servers with file-system changes can be a complex process, and it requires clear, open communication across the team.

Can you think of any examples where you should have worked more closely with these other groups?

The culture that we are trying to foster is one of cooperation and responsibility with minimal top-down management and maximum flexibility. The biggest challenge is communicating the constant changes across and within the network, server and application groups.

How do you see the role/priorities of the apps team changing in the light of such new technologies as SOA, VoIP and wireless?

The priority remains the same. Of course, this means that our platform must evolve to take advantage of , wireless and other technologies, as our custom applications and those delivered by our vendors become even more ubiquitous.

Babson emphasizes QoS beyond Layers 2 and 3. How does your group contribute to optimizing the user experience?

For Babson, can be defined simply by customer satisfaction. Our effectiveness is measured by consistently high-application availability and performance. We continuously improve our applications and infrastructure based upon the feedback from our users and the logging/monitoring that we build into all of our in-house applications.

How do you get buy-in from nontech groups at Babson when you're rolling out new technology?

One of the advantages of working in higher education, particularly in a school with such an entrepreneurial focus, is that even our most nontechnical users are being pushed by their customers -- generally, the student body -- to continuously evolve their processes and offerings. This environment of near constant change has made it relatively easy for us to roll out new technologies that provide perceived advantages, no matter how incremental. The larger challenge for us is to reign in some of our more bleeding-edge groups to derive more value from the existing applications.

What one technology has you most excited these days?

Mashups and using the Web as a platform. Our development team is working on projects to further enhance our portal by offering Babson-specific mashups, customized feeds and more community functionality.

Name a technology you think is overhyped or underrated?

For all the hype that it's gotten, businesses are just now beginning to find ways to create value for the enterprise through the use of mashup technology. Yahoo has created an interesting site that allows people without programming skills to utilize the power of RSS and Web-based APIs to bring together data from multiple sites, manipulate it and then publish it out with value added. This concept has been taken a bit further by and its product, RoboSuite. As more and more functionality is made available to the user, it will become incumbent upon application and data providers and integrators to find ways to make work- and school-related information securely available through the same means that people are accessing the information related to the rest of their lives.

What one technology do you wish never existed or that you could have back?

I can't think of any technology that I wish never existed -- and since nothing really goes away (I contend that it simply evolves into something else), there is nothing that I'd like to have back. There are numerous technologies that have made things difficult for us over the years, most notably products with security holes and the proliferation of worms, etc., to take advantage of those holes. However, to me, it's what people do with the technology that may be a problem, not the technology itself.

How do you keep up on new technologies?

I am both an avid reader and an endless Web surfer. If I find something that particularly interests me, I'll read more deeply on a subject -- or create a project for my team to dig into it.

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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