Project Management

10 ways to automate the mundane (so you can focus on what matters)

Wouldn't it be great if you could focus on supporting critical business initiatives instead of just keeping the lights on? These steps can help.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending TechRepublic's 2011 Live Event, where I joined technology pros in substantial discussions about today's technology and about the future of our industry. During this event, I was invited to speak on a topic near and dear to me during a session titled "Automate the mundane so you can focus on the impactful." During that session, I discussed ways that IT departments might streamline their services to provide more time to focus on business-leading initiatives as opposed to simply keeping the lights on.

1: Rethink and simplify the infrastructure

In 2010, a coalition of EMC, VMware, and Cisco launched a new product called the Vblock. The VBlock is a "data center in a box" solution that includes all the components necessary to operate a data center -- including storage, servers, a virtualization layer, and the interconnects necessary to make it all work. The Vblock solution comes fully preconfigured, pretested, and prevalidated so that organizations know that it will just work. Further, Vblocks have a single point of contact for every issue. There is no need to try to figure out which component is failing; simply call a single support number.

Vblocks probably sound like they're for relatively large environments and, up to a point, that's true. However, for smaller environments that want a similar solution, Dell offers its Vstart infrastructure units, which support 50, 100, and 200 virtual machines.

By buying a "unit of infrastructure," an IT department can take the guesswork out of infrastructure implementation and spend more time deploying business-focused services.

2: Virtualize everything

Virtualize everything. Yes, everything. Do you have four domain controllers? Virtualize every one of them. Virtualize even you biggest Exchange, SQL, and SharePoint systems. If it's physical, figure out a way to get rid of it.

Physical servers require time, space, and energy. The fewer you have, the easier the hardware environment is to support. Obviously, before you virtualize everything, either buy a Vblock or VStart or make sure you have a rock solid environment.

Although I condone virtualizing all your domain controllers, use your hypervisor's features to make sure that domain controller virtual machines run on different hosts to protect against failures. Also, for now at least, never snapshot your domain controllers and expect to revert to snapshotted copies. You run a very high risk of corrupting Active Directory.

3: Review the service catalog

IT departments everywhere have a set of services that are provided to the organization. Document every service that is provided and identify services that do not add value or that create constant issues. From there, ask yourself a couple of questions about each one:

  • Can any services be taken off the table or modified?
  • If it's repeatable, can it be automated?

Obviously, this is easier said than done in many places and will require a lot of discussion across the organization. But the result might just be a leaner, meaner IT organization.

4: Implement Project Portfolio Management

Although business/IT alignment has always been talked about, the rubber really hits the road when IT projects are carefully aligned with strategic goals and matched to resources. This is where Project Portfolio Management (PPM) comes in. PPM is used to optimize use of finite resources and will grow in importance, even in small shops -- so get ahead of the wave now.

Ad hoc project and portfolio is no longer acceptable and probably not sustainable; a formalized, repeatable, strategic approach is critical to success. This PPM process will be different for every organization, so think carefully about how you can approach it:

  • Is it purely financially focused?
  • How do IT initiatives link with strategic goals?

At a minimum, create some kind of scoring matrix through which every technology-related idea is run and determine how viable, from an alignment perspective, each idea is.

5: Consider strategic outsourcing/consulting

There's no need to go it alone in everything you do. Consider identifying some of those services that drag you down and make them someone else's problem... and maybe save a few bucks in the process. Here are a few ideas:

  • Managed print services. We've done this at Westminster to great effect.
  • Infrastructure/data center support services. Especially if you go to infrastructure in a box, can you outsource some infrastructure support personnel costs and reallocate some of the potential savings into IT/business pros?
  • Cloud solutions. Strategically and carefully consider migration to cloud-based solutions where it makes sense.

6: Refine identity management

How much time do you spend manipulating user accounts? Are you always notified when someone new joins the organization or someone leaves?

Account management is usually a repeatable, definable process. Map it out completely, implement a rules-based identity management solution, and start managing accounts on an exception basis rather than having to handle each one. You'll save time and might even make your organization a bit more secure in the process.

7: Do as much self-service as humanly possible

Here's a secret: If you can get someone else to do your work for you, you won't have to do it yourself! And, if people can do certain things themselves, they'll be more productive since they don't need to wait for a solution. Here are a few things you should consider making self service:

  • Password resets. These are, by far, the majority of help desk calls. Eliminate them!
  • Help desk knowledgebase. Can users find solutions to their own problems? Start building a knowledgebase. It will grow in use and you might save yourself some time.
  • Software provisioning. Does users need an updated version of Office? Let them get it themselves through a distribution mechanism.

8: Don't ignore BYOD

Bring your own device (BYOD) is coming! This will add new challenges to your workload but it may also present some opportunities that ultimately reduce support load. At the very least, if you're 100% BYOD, your IT department can focus on application delivery as opposed to "full stack" delivery that includes hardware.

Get ahead of BYOD by establishing clear and reasonable guidelines for use. You might find that BYOD enables reallocation of resources to business-friendly initiatives

9: Make integration a priority

Cloud services aren't going to go away no matter how long you close your eyes and will them to vanish. In fact, some cloud-based services can actually be good things, but onboarding such services requires carefully assessment and planning.

Work now to establish onboarding guidelines and processes and make sure that you integrate everything that can be reasonably integrated.

10: Keep it real

Unfortunately, I don't always take my own advice, but I should. At the end of the day, never lose sight of the fact that this is just a job. Unless you're in health care, no one is going to die and lives don't depend on how efficient your IT operation is. You can't automate the mundane if you're totally burned out or your staff is operating well beyond its maximum. So take baby steps and ease into changes as you're able. Don't tackle everything all at once.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

25 comments
michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

5) outsource whatever possible and 7) do as much self service as possible are opposite mentalities and will not work together. 5) says to give as much as possible to contractors, but in 7) you are telling users to do it yourself. If the users have to do it themselves, why shouldn't the in-house IT dept. do it themselves? What is good for the goose is good for the gander! And if the users are doing more themselves, who is going to help them, the contractors? (And they will need help! Don't kid yourself.) Are you going to have every individual user call the contractor for assistance? Yeah, those billable hours will be through the roof! You will be spending so much money, the next money saving tip will be in-house IT! And if the users have to wait for a contractor to help them, as opposed to the in house IT staff, lots of valuable time will also be lost. It seems to me that these two tips are so opposite in spirit and in application, they shouldn't be in the same list. The more of one you have, the less of the other you can afford. Do you just want to do away with the IT dept?

donallsop
donallsop

How do you make password resets self-service?

AlexNagy
AlexNagy

I was expecting something more along the lines of tips tasks that you could relegate to the Scheduled tasks app to be taken care of with minimal oversight.

stephen.smith
stephen.smith

I find some of the advice here to be quite dangerous to the IT department. It actually sounds like a bunch of sales pitches strung together.

Adam in DC
Adam in DC

First thing I do is in a new org is build a Windows Deployment Services imaging server to push out a current OS (meaning not XP). When everyone has a clean easily deployed desktop OS, it is easier to focus on the long-term issues. This is not a given, because imaging is a little more difficult in Win7 than WinXP. Second is get yourself Windows 2008 domain controllers so you can manage the granular folder redirection available in Windows 7. Not just Documents, but Desktop, Bookmarks and links too. Assuming you have the space. If someone loses their laptop, you have 99% of their most important work, much of which is stored on the desktop. And no, virtualizing the desktop isn't ubiquitous just yet.

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

But the first thing that struck me is $$$,$$$,$$$.$$. Weyerhauser tried this nearly two decades ago and, you know, it didn't work out. Maybe now? Maybe not. If you have plenty of money and feel lucky, go for it.

ChrisTheta
ChrisTheta

"Virtualize even you biggest Exchange, SQL, and SharePoint systems" If your large SQL server is using all its cpus and gobbling up as much memory as it can, then you aren't really going to gain anything by virtualizing it. In fact the overhead (albeit small) will make it perform worse. There also could be licensing issues since SQL will see virtualized cores as regular CPUs. Rather than making your life easier, it will give you additional things to worry about. One of the big reasons to virtualize is to share otherwise wasted, idle hardware resources. If you have a very busy Exchange or SQL server, there won't be any wasted resources to share. You'll find the hypervisor will give it its own host to run on anyway, so what's the point?

Cloud Guy
Cloud Guy

is vmware's marketing mantra, not a real world approach to computing. "Virtualize everything that makes sense to virtualize" is more appropriate guidance. Once virtualized, your domain controllers are now portable and can walk out of the data canter on a thumb drive. Is that the level of risk you really want? Every shop is different and virtualize everything is non sense for the vast majority of large orgs.

Ternarybit
Ternarybit

6 is One of two points I'll take contention with. The first is software updates; group policy pushes updates if implemented correctly under AD. Don't use AD? Sucks to be you. As for point 6, Identity management in a unified scenario is a brilliant, and oftentimes utopian pipedream that people will invest millions in. Reality is, unless you're willing to go single-vendor in terms of your IT software infrastructure, it's generally not going to work very well. (see: medical) I'm personally a fan of having a single OS environment enterprise-wide, because you can solve all the same problems on linux, unix or windows, but the key is committing to one, and investing the capital in making your systems work for you.

Alpha_Dog
Alpha_Dog

Take it all with a small Siberian salt mine. Ignore the above tips and do what works and makes sense for the organisation. While most of the tips are excellent, there are several real world issues with the tips presented: 1. Simplify. Absolutely. Get rid of legacy as soon as the new methods prove reliable. 2. Virtualize everything. Ummm... come again? How about a Linux embedded firewall in a SOHO setting? The point is that there is a point where a tool is and is not appropriate. Everything is a broad brush. 3. Review the service catalog. Good call. Why advertize that you will adjust the .ini files for a better WfW 3.11 experience in 2011? Again, getting rid of legacy is one of the most important and final parts of upgrading and standardization. 4. Project portfolio management. They will call it something else next week, but this has always been important. Today it's indispensable, particularly in software. The scope is different for small businesses as opposed to the IT department of a Fortune 500, but the theory is the same. To dance a polka, everyone has to be marching to the beat of the same accordion. 5. Consider the impact of outsourcing. When you save $20.00 per month, are you laying off three people to recoup the costs? What else do those people do for you? How much of a security risk is it? Are there any compliance issues? 6. Identity management needs to be done by the same team that does security assessments. If you allow HR to register new users, or worse, allow the users to self register, eventually you will end up with someone on the network who is not on the payroll... or at least not yours. 7. Self service. Good idea, but the implementation will make or break this. The software provisioning is a bit scary when you consider licensing, but I suppose it could be done. The rest is spot on. We should already be doing this. 8. BYOD. You bring it, you support it. We'll support the apps, but the device is yours, and thus your problem. We say it a bit nicer though. 9. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The cloud is a good idea for a lot of IT challenges, but is not the appropriate tool for everything. Walk into things with your eyes and options opened. Let the CEO spout the buzzwords and chase trends like his hair is on fire. Help the CIO make the right call. 10. Great advice. Wish I heard and groked this around Y2K. I learned this lesson then, at great personal cost. The war stories will cost ya a beer.

plcalderaz
plcalderaz

Typo at the start of step 5 where it says "There???s no need to go it alone in everything you so"

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

This wouldn't exactly be self-service, but a manager could handle it for their team, rather than the IT dept.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

to handle this. Have you seen web sites with 'Did you forget your password' links? They work like that, with the user required to enter personal data initially.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I was expecting tips applicable at the tactical, day-to-day level, not at strategic levels above my own. This is good stuff for the managerial level and higher, though.

MikeGall
MikeGall

If the tool fixes the problem for a price your willing to pay you buy the tool. Personally I like the idea of virtualization. I worked at a large company that had tons of servers that were used by one department occasionally (a couple days a month). But they all run different OSs so they got dedicated boxes mainly because the department coughed up the dough for the software and server. But the needs could have been much more easily met by a few hefty servers that would be faster when loaded with their app and less idle because CPU time would be shared with others. Plus less network ports tied up, less cables etc. To me it wouldn't have been the cost it would have been how much cleaner the datacenter would be.

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

Exchange 2007 with 300 users, runs no problem with 10GB RAM and on a SAS LUN on the SAN. SQL Servers we also run on a dedicated LUN, again no problems. Our bigger SQL boxes we keep as physicals. You just need to be sensible with it, it's really not rocket science.

Cicuta2011
Cicuta2011

Your really hit the nail on the head!

Ternarybit
Ternarybit

Obviously VMware has a vested interested in convincing everyone that the panacea to their problems is the magic button of virtualization. It's not very often virtualization really and truly makes sense, because the whole point of real virtualization is to allow different applications and services make use of hardware when loaded against other software on a different OS instance that has inverse load. Generally speaking, hardware is cheap so there's no issue overloading whether your infrastructure is virtualized, or whether it's specifically purposed hardware. Virtualization ideally saves you time when you need to move an instance to new hardware, but generalization can do the same. In my experience (always loved that vaguery), the organizations who choose to virtualize just end up underallocating their boxes to the nth degree and in worst case scenarios implement NUMA node spanning so that their ram allocation bottlenecks and the unattentive admins never notice./ramblatribe P.s. Virtualizing DCs? That's *very* close to jumping the shark, but valid. I know there's people dumb enough to do it.

MikeGall
MikeGall

Virtualization works for a lot of loads but things that are going to affect everyones performance, like the firewall? Drop the extra few thousand and have a dedicated server for it. It will likely need to be an odd beast compared with your normal blade VM servers anyways since it will need all the FC cards in it for all the vlans, redundant internet connections etc.

Cicuta2011
Cicuta2011

Great comments, matter of fact better than the advice given. I do recall Y2K also although it was a piece of cake for me as I started to do the work for Y2K 6 months ahead of time. Never be surprise by anything has been my religion.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

So, not only will we have people sharing passwords, (being against the rules doesn't stop it,) we will also have people resetting each others' passwords. Can we get back to reality now?

reggaethecat
reggaethecat

We have virtualised almost everything and will continue to do so. Hardware is not cheap when you consider it is under-utilised the majority of the time. "It's not very often virtualization really and truly makes sense, because the whole point of real virtualization is to allow different applications and services make use of hardware when loaded against other software on a different OS instance that has inverse load." And therefore virtualisation makes perfect sense and works very well in the vast majority of cases. "P.s. Virtualizing DCs? That's *very* close to jumping the shark, but valid. I know there's people dumb enough to do it." Why?