While working in a help-desk capacity, as is often the case in consulting, might pay the rent, the consultant who can work with the client at the strategic level to design reliable systems and prevent problems can command a higher rate.

But how do you learn the skills to move up to this level? It’s hard enough just serving your clients and keeping up to date technically. How are you supposed to absorb operational best practices as well?

Learning your way around the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) can help. MOF is based on the IT Infrastructure Library, Microsoft’s own experience, and that of its partners and customers. MOF provides industry best practices for reliably operating IT systems, distilled into an easy-to-digest form.

In this article, we’ll look at how MOF’s Team Model and Process Model can help you keep your existing clients happy and take your consulting skill to a new level.

Last in a series

This is the last of a three-part series on Microsoft’s IT Lifecycle Frameworks. The first article gave an overview of Microsoft’s IT Lifecycle Frameworks and their underlying models. In the second installment, we drilled down on the first of the two frameworks, Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF).

Building + operating = service
About four years ago, when Microsoft set its sights on the enterprise, it realized that server software was different from desktop systems. IT departments didn’t use server technology for their own goals, as a desktop user might. Rather, they operated it to provide a service to someone else, said Neil Fairhead, lead product manager for the frameworks at Microsoft.

“That meant we had to reach out to the operations community in the way we originally reached out to the development community,” he said. “MOF is the result.”

MOF is designed to address the ongoing operation of solutions built upon Microsoft technologies, in the same way that Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF) is designed to help build such solutions. Both frameworks build on a common Risk Management model, but each has its own Team Model and Process Model.

A team for the long haul
MOF’s Team Model, like that of the MSF, is a team of peers in which each member is responsible for one or more roles. But because operating a solution to provide a service is an ongoing process, rather than a project-based one, MOF teams have different objectives and roles than those of MSF teams.

The six MOF team roles include the following:

  1. Release focuses on implementing changes to the system quickly. The release manager takes a new solution—or a new release of an existing one—and makes sure it gets integrated into production. This role also works with the Logistics Management role of the MSF team that built the solution.
  2. Infrastructure is responsible for the overall architecture that supports the solution: the capacity of the servers, network connectivity, and tools.
  3. Operations involves the traditional day-to-day management of computer systems: backup and recovery, availability, job scheduling, and storage management.
  4. Security is responsible for intrusion detection, virus protection, network- and system-access control, and contingency (disaster) planning.
  5. Support looks after the end users. Senior people with excellent people skills should be in this role so they can quickly manage incidents as they occur and give superior customer service.
  6. Partners have the responsibility of working with outside firms and trading partners. You can treat vendors as commodities and simply try to get the best price for their services, says Fairhead, or you can view them as a portfolio of capabilities. Managing a portfolio means selecting the right partner relationships and developing them to become more valuable over time.

Change is the enemy of stable systems
Every time you make a change to a production system, you risk breaking something. To combat this, the MOF Process Model dictates that related changes should be collected and implemented in a series of managed releases, just as MSF does for development. Between releases, change is thus minimized to prevent interruptions in service.

While the MSF process model moves from phase to phase separated by neat milestones, MOF views all four “quadrants” of its cycle as concurrent. In operations, you must introduce the next change while simultaneously operating the current solution, supporting it, and tuning for best performance. Management reviews replace milestones in the MOF model.

The quadrants are:

  1. Changing. Activity in the Changing quadrant starts when a series of changes—a release—has been approved by management. This quadrant includes change management, configuration management, and release management. The Release Readiness management review verifies that the changes are ready to be moved into production.
  2. Operating. Although most of MOF is based on ITIL, the Operating quadrant is almost purely Microsoft’s idea. Because ITIL is platform independent and has no information on how to operate any specific operating system, MOF uses this quadrant to fill in that gap with detailed information on how to operate Microsoft software. MOF already includes two white papers that contain such information: the Windows 2000 Operations Guide series and the SQL Server 2000 Operations Guide. The Operations Review periodically checks that procedures and staff are adequate to deliver the service and that knowledge gained is documented.
  3. Supporting. The help-desk function is part of the Supporting quadrant, as are incident management and problem management. ITIL differentiates between incidents, in which a specific user doesn’t achieve what they expect from the system, and problems, which are issues raised with the system itself. The goals of the Supporting quadrant are to get the user productive again quickly and to give feedback to developers about what needs to be changed. The Service Level Agreement (SLA) review checks that the agreed-upon level of response time, availability, and functionality was indeed delivered.
  4. Optimizing. This quadrant is charged with managing the service level and cost of the solution. To do this, the team will recommend future changes. The Release Approved management review analyzes the proposed changes against benefits and costs. Upon approval, the cycle begins again.

Bottom line
MOF is a way to tap into years of accumulated IT experience, says Fairhead. But it’s packaged in an easy-to-read form, like a short course in computer operations. You can use the MOF team model to identify which IT functions your client is handling well and which may need attention to prevent future problems.

Often, this analysis will lead directly to projects. If a client’s security role is weak, for example, you can offer to provide expertise in that area. In addition, doing a backup and recovery assessment (part of the Operations role) is a short, fixed-price project that can get you in the door at a new client and pave the way for future work.

Likewise, you can use the MOF process model to help your clients stabilize their systems by promoting the idea of managed releases instead of constant change. The Operations Guides will help you stay up to date on best practices for Microsoft products. And recommending the types of regular management reviews specified in MOF can bolster your reputation as a consultant who provides valuable strategic advice.

What have you done to bolster your career?

Have you taken your consulting career to a higher level during the past year? Tell us what you did (new certifications, publishing, contract work with a high-profile client, etc.). We’ll incorporate your suggestions into upcoming articles.