Do new technologies make IT easier?

Technologies that automate and streamline network tasks and infrastructure can lighten the workloads of IT pros, but they can also create new burdens.

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Software-defined networking, intent-based networking, SD-WAN, and a host of other technologies are focused on making IT work easier through automation. Rather than manually configuring every part of a system, these technologies offer templates, AI assistance, and, in theory, a much lower workload for the IT worker in the field. Whether that theory translates to practice, however, remains a matter of debate.

Outsourcing can ease technology adoption

For some, the advantages of networking automation and outsourcing have proved wildly successful. Stewart Ebrat is the CIO of the Vera Wang Group, a fashion chain with 10 stores in the U.S. and several hundred around the globe. He’s been in IT for more than 20 years and has worked for IBM and the New York Stock Exchange, among others.

In his earlier days in IT, Ebrat said, the focus was heavily on just making sure all the interconnections worked – he cited clients and mainframes as particular pain points. And at the outset of his time at Vera Wang five years ago, the IT shop was much more traditional, relying on virtual private LAN service to link stores to a data center and handling operational tech like point-of-sale locally.

Under his stewardship, Vera Wang has embraced the as-a-service availability of new technologies, more or less outsourcing every part of its IT infrastructure to vendors. For example, Aruba/HPE handles the networking, including SD-WAN, to connect stores to one another and to an Azure back-end, and it also handles most of the day-to-day IT support for the stores.

This has enabled Ebrat to reduce total IT staffing to himself and one helpdesk employee, down from an earlier total of five, with the goal of reducing total spending and making IT expenses more manageable, he said.

“In the garment industry, [IT is] considered a department that wastes money, not one that brings money in,” he said. “Nowadays, the responsibility of IT always being there and being able to be there at a moment’s notice is a big issue.” Hence, the ability to hand off support responsibilities to vendors that are fully up-to-speed on a given product is very useful, and, Ebrat said, has saved the company money.

Ebrat said he wants to get absolutely all of Vera Wang’s IT into the cloud and rely on vendors to provide support. Rather than calling the company helpdesk, store workers with an IT problem are expected to liaise with vendors directly. “Each solution has their own support,” he said.

It’s worked out well, according to Ebrat. The types of service offerings he has adopted offer a better top-down view into what’s happening on his company’s systems than before, and has improved his ability to automate infrastructure and make it more stable.

Acquiring new skills can add work to adopting work-saving changes

For others enterprises, the promise of decreased IT workloads is harder to assess. Tom Hull is the CIO of Kaleida Healthcare, which serves close to 200 locations across western New York, including hospitals, ambulatory care sites, clinics, surgery centers, and urgent care. About 250 IT professionals report to him.

The widely distributed service areas create the need for a fairly complicated IT environment, said Hull.

“[It’s] humongous. We’ve got three data centers, core network out to distributed networking,” he said. “Some of the sites are very complicated, some have their own voice systems and that sort of thing, so we’re consolidating that on top of our core networking.”

Hull has been in IT since 1986, and has lived through three major network-architecture shifts in that time: from mainframes to client-server in the 1990s, to web apps in the 2000s, and now the move to the cloud.

The job of IT isn’t easier now, he said, and much of the reason is security. “It was much simpler back in the 1990s or even 15 years ago,” Hull said. “Now we have to have massive amounts of cybersecurity to cover all these different endpoints and vulnerabilities.”

This isn’t to say that new IT tech doesn’t have numerous upsides, particularly in networking with SDN. But it takes a lot of expertise and labor to get new systems running, and many IT staffers aren’t up to speed yet, Hull said. “In order to design and architect and make [an SDN] layer that flexible, you have to have some very smart certified virtualization engineers,” he said.

In contrast to Vera Wang, Kaleida has been adding IT staff, not getting rid of it. The reason, according to Hull, is that different industries and businesses of different sizes have drastically different requirements.

“If you’re a dentist’s office, you could have a couple PC technicians and a couple applications that aren’t too heavy,” he said. “But if you’re in finance or our industry, we’re adding workers. If it was getting simpler, that wouldn’t be the case.”

That isn’t an indictment of the new technologies in the slightest, Hull added, noting that he enjoys the challenge. “More’s being asked of us, but at the same time, that’s the fun stuff, the stuff that makes you feel like you’re contributing to the business, not just running the plumbing,” he said.

Maturity of technology can influence adoption

One big reason different businesses make different changes to their IT-technology choices is that each technology area is maturing at a different rate. So a business more reliant on a particular technology will be affected more by its maturity level than another business that doesn’t rely on it, according to Arun Chandrasekaran, a vice president and analyst at Gartner Research.

For example, the tooling for provisioning compute, cloud compute, and storage are becoming more mature, he said, but, “I’d argue that the network is just a little behind in the level of automation we see in the enterprise today.”

Chandrasekaran added that he was unsurprised to see a wide gulf between the experiences of Hull and Ebrat, given that there are so many variables that go into whether IT is getting easier. “It’s a function of cloud maturity, organizational maturity, how their infrastructure and organization teams are organized, and we do see a wide degree of variance in the marketplace today,” he said.

Moreover, despite the avowed aim of simplifying IT, many of the technologies designed to do that add work in their own ways, according to IDC research director Mark Leary.

“Network automation does not necessarily simplify things,” he said. “If it’s not done well, frankly, it can speed up and expand the scope of disasters, because it’s operating in the background and away from the prying eyes of the operator.”

Leary also underscored Hull’s point about the need for sophisticated professionals to manage new technologies. While there are some organizations, like Vera Wang, that outsource most of their IT, most others will need some in-house expertise to run new systems like SD-WAN.

“[Networking automation technologies] all offer part of the solution to the problem of complexity … but there’s a lot of onus still on the staff to make sure they’re doing things right,” he said. “If you’re going to write a Python program, you have to learn Python.”

Making a modern network simple is a complicated business, according to Leary, and for most, the workload hasn’t changed much with the advent of new technologies, however much they promise to help simplify matters.

“I have yet to meet a network professional with a lot of free time,” he said.


Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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