Can New IT Strategies Improve Your Bottom Line?
More efficient approaches to technology can pay off for any organization.
by | John Edwards
John Edwards is a veteran business technology journalist. He co-authored the first book on using computers in a law office and is a former columnist for Law Technology News.
IT departments are feeling the pressure. Organizations expect their IT teams to take advantage of powerful new technologies to improve productivity and deliver advanced capabilities. Meanwhile, spending on legacy equipment is steadily declining, challenging IT staff to maintain existing operations and services at acceptable levels, while also investigating promising new solutions. This environment demands a logical approach: Organizations must devise an IT strategy that allows them to do more with less.
"Organizations today face static-to-declining IT budgets — especially compared with the growing data set they must manage — and therefore must look at cutting costs in all areas," says Lee Caswell, vice president of VMware's products, storage and availability business unit.
Fortunately, addressing three basic areas will set almost any organization on the path to cost savings and improved IT efficiency.
1. Refresh the IT infrastructure
Any effort to cut costs and improve efficiency should begin at the IT core: the data center infrastructure. By deploying up-to-date hardware, organizations can take immediate advantage of new features, including improved performance and reliability. "The growing costs of retaining an aging IT infrastructure, including the increase in failure rate, downtime and support costs beyond year three, can justify a programmatic technology refresh program," says Michael Swan, director of global business development for HPE Financial Services.
State-of-the-art servers, for instance, offer greater processing power, allowing them to handle more and heavier workloads, including sophisticated data analytics. "Not only are the servers more robust performancewise, but they've got more compute capability, can handle more workloads, have more memory and also have better resiliency," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior adviser at StorageIO, a technology consulting firm.
A revolution in storage technology is helping forward-looking organizations to simultaneously store more data and lower overall storage costs. Flash is an increasingly popular option thanks to its speed, energy efficiency and reliability. "Solid-state flash, nonvolatile memory storage, is in your future," Schulz says.
"Although at one point it was mostly reserved for specialized niche or high-performance apps, over the past year or so, we have really seen flash storage turn a corner and hit the mainstream in a big way, mainly due to the compelling economics," says Brad Parks, HPE's director of storage and Big Data product marketing. "The benefits are clear — less space, less management, less power, more predictability, greater performance, lower latency."
Declining media costs and new technologies that use flash more efficiently are making flash economics increasingly compelling for many organizations. "Many larger organizations have now flipped to a flash-only storage strategy for their critical apps, and we're starting to see this change trickle down into smaller businesses as well," Parks says. For organizations that still aren't ready to make a total commitment to flash, hybrid storage (incorporating flash along with traditional arrays) provides a way to improve performance and gain flash efficiency benefits, while using less expensive storage options for lower priority workloads.
A frequently overlooked path to increased IT savings is trimming data center power and cooling consumption. "You can have the most effective, the most efficient systems, but if you have a low-performing power or cooling system, you may offset your savings," Schulz says. He notes that data center service optimization — the next step in efficient data center infrastructure management — optimizes energy resources by making them an integral part of data center business planning, cost accounting, energy resource design and management.
A data center's physical configuration also plays an important role in its power and cooling efficiency. For optimal results — and cost savings — server racks should be deployed in hot and cold aisles arranged in alternating rows, with cold-air intakes facing one way and hot-air exhausts facing the other. Typically, cold aisles face air-conditioner output ducts while hot aisles face air-conditioner return ducts. A 2014 survey by the Uptime Institute found that 80 percent of sites have implemented hot- or cold-aisle containment.
Another path organizations are taking to lower the cost of power and cooling, as well as computing and storage resources, is transitioning to a hyperconverged infrastructure. An HCI tightly integrates computing, storage, networking and other infrastructure technologies into a commodity hardware box supported by a single vendor.
"A major advantage of HCI related to power and cooling is a more efficient architecture that can dramatically reduce the overall IT footprint in the data center, resulting in noticeable facility and real-estate savings as well," Caswell says. "Additionally, HCI systems can offer organizations a building block to the software-defined data center, where all infrastructure is virtualized and delivered as a service."
Machine Learning Streamlines
and Supercharges Data Centers
Machine learning is becoming a valuable tool for data center operators, helping IT staff to create smarter applications, improve existing services and lower energy costs.
While not a new technology, machine learning has reached the stage where hardware and computational advances, combined with the availability of massive amounts of data, enable powerful algorithms to drastically reduce the time needed to acquire valuable insights. "The combination enables modeling on much bigger data, with faster results even at very large scale," says Wayne Thompson, chief data scientist at SAS.
A type of artificial intelligence, machine learning automates and accelerates the process of gathering key insights from large and complex data sources. "It does this without being explicitly programmed or being informed where exactly to look or what to conclude," Thompson says.
Machine learning algorithms have their roots in various research fields, such as statistics, forecasting, data mining, text analytics and optimization. "These algorithms are used with a common goal of optimizing business processes, whether it be customer marketing and service, risk management or manufacturing processes," Thompson says.
Machine learning applications are often used to cut costs created by fraud or poorly managed supply chains. "In other uses, they can produce new insights that drive revenue through applications that yield a better understanding of customer behavior or reveal new market opportunities," Thompson says.
Some of the world's largest data center operators are now investigating machine learning's potential to optimize energy use. Google, for instance, announced in 2016 that it has applied machine learning algorithms to its own data centers to reduce the amount of energy used for cooling by up to 40 percent.
2. SAM Fuels Software Consolidation
Software asset management solutions give organizations a clear picture of their overall application environment and software spending practices. "SAM solutions first discover, and then track, PCs, servers and other hardware solutions where software is installed," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology research firm. This capability helps organizations ensure that they're paying for the correct number of software licenses. "At the same time, organizations can follow up on those discovered systems and make certain the employees using them have the software they need," King says.
SAM tools also help organizations ensure that they're not wasting money on shelfware — software that goes unused or perhaps is never even installed. "When unused software is reclaimed off of the endpoint, it can be reallocated to another user who needs it," says Patricia Adams, IT asset management evangelist at LANDESK Software. "This can avoid the expense associated with purchasing a new instance."
Other strategic benefits are SAM's ability to help organizations discover potentially dangerous shadow IT software and maximize the value of software license terms, such as provisions for support and training. A SAM solution can also smooth the path to Software as a Service (SaaS) deployments, which can be less expensive and easier to manage than onsite solutions.
SAM solutions are also designed to ensure complete lifecycle management, helping organizations to weed out obsolete applications. "Many times, organizations will continue to renew maintenance on apps without validating that they are still strategic to the organization or that they are still widely used," Adams explains.
We have really seen flash storage turn a corner and hit the mainstream in a big way, mainly due to the compelling economics.
Brad Parks , Director of Storage and Big Data Product Marketing, HPE
SAM Bolsters Security
Although software asset management is most often viewed as a cost-reduction tool, SAM also has the ability to strengthen IT security, potentially preventing a costly data breach. By helping organizations gain control over their software environment — determining where applications reside, who needs access to them, and if they are actually being used — SAM solutions can play a major role in keeping attackers and other cybercriminals at bay. SAM technology complements and strengthens existing security tools and processes, enhancing an organization's ability to safeguard its systems and data, reducing operational risk.
"SAM tools are effective for tracking the regular distribution and installation of applications and patches, including security solutions," says Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
Another way that SAM technology improves security is by identifying out-of-date software. "If the application is strategic to the organization, it will need to retain third-party support to ensure that the application is patched and maintained to reduce security risk," says Patricia Adams, IT asset management evangelist at LANDESK Software. "It is not unusual to hear of companies that have been hacked through old instances of software that have vulnerabilities."
3. Subscription IT Purchasing
Many organizations save money by acquiring key IT solutions on a subscription basis, including SaaS, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service offerings.
The subscription model provides valuable cost benefits, says Adams. "Many capital costs can be reduced by making the costs part of the operating budget," she says. "Software upgrades, patches and version updates can all be handled by the supplier at their location, thereby reducing impact to the central IT team, which can continue to work on other higher value projects." Subscription services also ease the purchasing process and speed up IT rollouts, because organizations don't have to waste time researching technology, ordering hardware, and then testing, configuring and deploying their investment.
This model also allows organizations to scale up IT capabilities quickly without being forced to make large capital investments. Further, they can scale down capabilities just as quickly, avoiding spending on assets that are no longer needed. “In many cases, businesses buy applications they don't really require but have no recourse for effecting returns or demanding refunds,” King says.