10 ways to build a solid capacity planning effort

Trying to predict when you'll need additional hardware resources, how much you'll need, and what type you will need is a challenge. Follow these 10 steps to make your plan more effective and easier to implement.

Developing a comprehensive capacity plan can be daunting at the outset and requires dedication and commitment to maintain it on an ongoing basis. These 10 tips can help ease some of the challenges and increase the likelihood of an effective, successful program.

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#1: Start small

Many a capacity-planning effort fails after a few months because it encompassed too broad a scope too early on. This is especially true for shops that have had no previous experience in this area. It is wise to start with just a few of the most critical resources -- say, processors or bandwidth -- and to gradually expand the program as you gain more experience.

#2: Speak your customers' language

When requesting workload forecasts from your developers and especially your end-user customers, discuss the forecasts in terms that the developers and customers understand. For example, rather than asking for estimated increases in processor utilization, ask how many additional concurrent users are expected to be using the application or how many of a specific type of transaction is likely to be executed during peak periods.

#3: Consider future platforms

When evaluating tools to be used for capacity planning, keep in mind new architectures that your shop may be considering and select packages that can be used on both current and future platforms. Some tools that appear well suited for your existing platforms may have little or no applicability to planned architectures. This consideration should extend not just to servers, but to disk arrays, tape equipment, desktop workstations, and network hardware.

#4: Share plans with suppliers

If you plan to use your capacity-planning products across multiple platforms, it is important to inform your software suppliers of your plans. During these discussions, make sure that add-on expenses -- the costs for drivers, agents, installation time and labor, copies of licenses, updated maintenance agreements, and the like -- are all identified and agreed upon up front. Reductions in the costs for license renewals and maintenance agreements can often be negotiated based on all of the other additional expenses.

#5: Anticipate nonlinear cost ratios

One of my esteemed college professors was fond of saying that indeed we live in a nonlinear world. This is certainly the case when it comes to capacity upgrades. Some upgrades will be linear in the sense that doubling the amount of a planned increase in processors, memory, channels, or disk volumes will double the cost of the upgrade. But if the upgrade approaches the maximum number of cards, chips, or slots that a device can hold, a relatively modest increase in capacity may end up costing an immodest amount for additional hardware. This is sometimes referred to as the knee of the curve, where the previous linear relationship between cost and capacity suddenly accelerates into exponential increases.

#6: Plan for occasional workload reductions

A forecasted change in workload may not always cause an increase in the capacity required. Departmental mergers, staff reductions, and productivity gains may result in some production workloads being reduced. Similarly, development workloads may decrease as major projects become deployed. Although increases in needed capacity are clearly more likely, reductions are possible. A good guideline to use when questioning users about future workloads is to emphasize changes, not just increases.

#7: Prepare for the turnover of personnel

One of the events that undermines a capacity-planning effort early on is to have the individual most responsible for, and most knowledgeable about, the overall program leave the company. Regardless of the preventative measures taken, there is no guarantee that attrition will not occur. But there are several actions that can mitigate the impact. One action to take is to carefully interview and select an individual who in your best judgment appears unlikely to leave your firm anytime soon. You should also ensure that the process is thoroughly documented. If resources are available, training a backup person is another way to mitigate turnover. Finally, in extreme cases, an employment contract may be used to sustain ongoing employment of a key individual.

#8: Strive to continually improve the process

One of the best ways to continually improve the effectiveness of the capacity-planning process is to set a goal to expand and improve at least one part of it with each new version of the plan. Possible enhancements could include the addition of new platforms, centralized printers, or remote locations. A new version of the plan should be created at least once a year and preferably every six months.

#9: Institute a formal capacity-planning program

Some shops initiate a capacity-planning program in a very informal manner to simply get something started. There is nothing wrong with this approach if the intent is merely to overcome inaction and to start the ball rolling. This can also help raise awareness of the need to evolve this initial effort into a formal capacity-planning program. The one major drawback to this method is that all too often shops that start out with this approach never progress beyond it. At some point soon after initiating a capacity-planning effort, a formal process needs to be put in place.

#10: Market the lesser-known benefits of capacity planning

In addition to being able to predict when, how much, and what type of additional hardware resources will be needed, a comprehensive capacity-planning program offers four lesser known benefits that should be marketed to infrastructure managers and IT executives. These benefits are:

  • Strengthened relationships with developers and end users. The process of identifying and meeting with key users to discuss anticipated workloads usually strengthens the relationships between IT infrastructure staff and customers. Communication, negotiation, and a sense of joint ownership can all combine to nurture a healthy, professional relationship between IT and its customers.
  • Improved communications with suppliers. Suppliers are generally like any other support group in that they do not enjoy last-minute surprises. Involving key suppliers and support staffs with your capacity plans can promote effective communications among these groups. It can also make their jobs easier in meeting deadlines, reducing costs, and offering additional alternatives for capacity upgrades.
  • Increased collaboration with other infrastructure groups. A comprehensive capacity plan by necessity will involve multiple support groups. Network services, technical support, database administration, operations, desktop support, and even facilities may all play a role in capacity planning. In order for the plan to be thorough and effective, all these various groups must support and collaborate with each other.
  • Promotion of a culture of strategic planning as opposed to tactical firefighting. By definition, capacity planning is a strategic activity. To do it properly, one must look forward and focus on the plans of the future instead of the problems of the present. One of the most significant benefits of developing an overall and ongoing capacity-planning program is the institutionalizing of a strategic-planning culture.

The Enterprise Computing Institute (www.ecinst.com) helps IT professionals solve problems and simplify the management of IT through consulting and training based on the best-selling Enterprise Computing Institute book series. Founded by Harris Kern (www.harriskern.com), the industry's foremost expert on simplifying IT and world-renowned American author, publisher, lecturer, and consultant, the Institute has focused on providing practical guidance for tackling current IT challenges since its inception in 1998.


I worked as a consultant in performance analysis and capacity planning for over 15 years before retirement (albeit for much larger than desktop systems). Needless to say, whenever an upgrade is needed it involves the expenditure of more money. I found my analysis and recommendations always worked best when I involved higher level executives in the process. One of my approaches was when they are growing their business, they will want to know exactly how long their systems will keep the business running before another upgrade is required; especially when additional and yet unknown workloads are added. This is where the "art" and "experience come in. But the best buy-in argument was that they will want to go to "the well" for money only one time in the next 2 or 3 years. I would then present to them several scenarios (graphics included) of how their computers would perform (best case, typical and worst case) based on input THEY gave me. They could then make their choice of how much they wanted to include in their budget for future growth with minimum push-back from the bean counters. I also asked them to include my services in their budget every 6 months to determine if they were still on track with projections and make adjustments based on reality. I found this work very challenging, rewarding and satisfying as I became their friend to help them with difficult decisions.


Very good points. 1,2,9,and 10 should get you started. Just don't wait fast results - unfortunately often today even big corporations see capacity planning just a bunch of programs and reports? Capacity planning is very interesting but almost a forgotten "art" currently. Learn modeling or even simulation of systems and infrastructure, on log run there will be surprises and it is nice to know boundaries before they happen. Don't assume anything - in theory an application or system may have certain characteristics, the reality may be totally different. Very important to know what business plans executive branch and for example security organization have, they don't always think capacity when making their decisions! And markets change all the time! Don't try to make too long forecasts before you have enough(?) data - you will be hard pushed by other organizations and executives but try to explain why unknown is impossible to estimate. Watch patterns and trends both technical and business, they often tell more than just cold facts. Some large vendors have very good resources, some don't - participate conferences, seminars, user groups, talk to other capacity people - unbelievable amount information is available but has to be found and filtered, especially vendors try to push their views and often have no idea of you business model. From beginning make the data you collect compatible with future data, any numbers and figures must have the same meaning next year, otherwise they will come (almost) useless and may even give wrong results. Watch rules, regulations, laws, etc - they may have a huge effect sometimes and even more so if the company works globally. Don't forget disasters, backups, restores, etc. And so on, remember every business environment / infrastructure / etc is different and ever changing so there are no canned answers in capacity planning. And be ready for political fights, those always happen when talking about resources and future!

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