Q&A: Babson College's manager of enterprise services

Virtualized servers pulling everyone in IT together

An interview with Steve Thurlow, manager of enterprise services, at Babson College in Massachusetts.

With the emergence of such technologies as VoIP, server virtualization and wireless networking, the lines between network, systems and applications groups keep getting blurrier. Network World Editor Bob Brown recently conducted separate interviews with three members of the 38-person IT team at Babson College, a business school for 3,300 students based in Wellesley, Mass., to gain insight into the perspectives of members from different departments and to learn how they are coordinating their efforts to manage a 9,000-port network (plus 300 wireless access points) across roughly 60 buildings. Here's his discussion with Steve Thurlow, manager of enterprise services.

How do you interact with your peers in software services?

On all levels. For starters the network and systems groups are managed by me, so we have a great deal of interaction where otherwise we might not.

We also have integrated weekly operational and project meetings in which staff from applications/systems and networks work together in delivering our services. Typically, in IT this kind of interaction only happens on projects. The problem with that scenario for us is that we do both operations and project work. I have found that including everyone in the operational meetings as well as project meetings has produced a balance from all groups that truly understand we are not just project-focused and point fingers at each other when we have issues with project deadlines. The other aspect is that it becomes harder to separate the pieces when you have applications running on virtual servers connecting to an IP SAN with VLAN trunking on backup and production networks. All these technologies are merging to a point that it becomes difficult to function well if we are not working together.

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

360-degree communication is critical. Since we are technical groups, we often listen to one scenario while thinking of something totally different. This means we walk away thinking we have consensus that we don't actually have. This happens all the time, and the only way to effectively deal with it is clearly stating after the fact what we talked about. This will identify areas that need more discussion prior to getting knee-deep doing something that you find out later was not what everyone agreed to in their own minds.

Give me a thumbnail sketch of a project where your groups worked with software services.

The deployment of virtual servers has pulled everyone together in a way that required the trusting of each other's disciplines in the delivery of services to our customers. Combining applications on underutilized servers to a common virtual server is an area where the application experts needed to trust the system experts in providing a platform that would perform for the applications that couldn't be physically touched. The system admins needed to work with the network admins in delivering VLAN trunks and lag ports to the virtual servers as well as connectivity to disk delivered over an Ethernet network.

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

The most important lesson learned is don't be afraid to both ask for help understanding something and also don't hold back in the giving of information to others. The biggest mistake is to assume that because someone works in another group that they either wouldn't understand or don't care about the expertise that you provide.

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

Over the next five to 10 years, we will continue to see a blurring of service providers for voice, video and data. As this trend continues, companies will struggle with how they can morph their separate groups for these services into a combined force that will be able to really utilize the emerging technologies in ways that will improve their service offerings.

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

By simply looking at it as an experience and not just a narrow view of how fast the packets get from one part of the network to another. Everyone feels a responsibility to making sure that the user's experience is the best that we can offer. Sometimes that may mean that a system admin helps a user troubleshoot their networking connectivity when the call that came in was related to server performance. Our user community sees IT as one face. We try to make sure the face they see does not have multiple personalities.

What one technology has you most excited these days?

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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