Managing the cost of complexity

Managing complexity in the environment is key to maintaining low costs. Managing complexity requires an honest evaluation of not only the acquisition cost but the costs associated with the long term impact of the solution.

The need for balancing the level of complexity in your systems and networking is the need to manage the costs of complexity itself—and the benefits that sometimes come with making the decision for the component which adds the complexity. For instance, fifteen years ago I was running a LAN. When I was managing it, we had a Token Ring environment because of the IBM AS/400. We were faced with a need to put in a small fiber run to the plant across the street. At the time, doing that with Token Ring was extremely expensive. As a result, I added Ethernet (10Base-T) to our physical network.

We saved several thousand dollars but it required that I train technical staff not only on how to make a Type A/Type 1 cable for Token Ring using a shielded twisted pair, but also on crimping RJ-45 connectors and how to get the pair ordering right for Ethernet. It helped that the IT world was going to Ethernet, and we would have to make the transition one day anyway.

It is decisions like that one, and the hundreds that you make each year, that add complexity to the environment. It could be something as minor as buying a different network switch than you normally buy because your model isn't in stock, and you need the new switch in a hurry.

For each decision, you have to evaluate whether the complexity being added to the environment is justifiable given the cost savings.

Understanding the need for balance

The natural tendency is for systems and networks to get more and more complex up to the point where the system architect can no longer adequately manage them. At that point a pushback begins. In other words, there is a resistance to complexity starts to appear.

Sometimes the constraint on complexity comes too early. The additional complexity of the solution prevents us from implementing it even when it is in the best interests of the organization. However, the opposite is sometimes true. We allow things to get too complex and end up creating unnecessary challenges for managing the environment. Learning to create the appropriate amount of complexity in an environment is essential to reducing costs.

Not complex enough

The bias towards limiting complexity keeps you from exploring other valuable options. Let's face it, the pristine network or architecture just hasn't been created yet. Elegant solutions to problems are always a goal but if you can't point out at least one scar in the plan, then it's likely that the plan isn't real or hasn't been tested yet.

However, there are those who hold tightly to the simplified environments that they know and love:A Novell shop shuns Microsoft Windows Servers and waits until it has absolutely no choice but to implement a Windows server because the business finally insists upon it. A shop will sometimes use only Microsoft Windows even in its graphics department even though it can reduce problems and rework to have the graphics department working on a Macintosh.

These environments are holding on to a simplicity that is too pure. Instead of the deciding factor being based on the best solution for the organization, the question becomes what is the best solution for me and my familiar environment. This is just one way that we shun complexity in favor of what we know and understand.

Too complex

On the other end of the spectrum are the managers who try new things without a care for how much complexity they add to the environment. Their point of view is that if they know and understand the technology, then everyone should. They typically have different kinds of hardware and software scattered throughout their environment.

Their routers and switches are whatever was cheap the day they bought them. They have added Linux to the mix of server operating systems to handle some trivial task like serving HTML pages to the Web. The added complexity of a new router, switch, or even an operating system doesn't scare managers whose environments end up too complex for anyone but them to run.

This condition is one part ego and one part job security. The ego part says, "I'm the only one who can do it." The security part asks, "How could they replace me? No one would be able to understand this the way I do?" Of course, both are unhealthy responses to large systems. A more appropriate statement is "Anyone can do it." The key to large systems is sustainability, and that requires that more than one person can understand the system.

The appropriate response is to evaluate the additional training and support costs, and decide from there whether the additional complexity makes sense. Once you've made an evaluation, and made the decision to accept the complexity, you need to mitigate the risks and costs associated with that decision.

Controlling the cost of complexity

The simple answer to constraining training costs is to find something similar to existing pieces of the system. This can mean a different model of the same brand, or a model of a brand that is familiar to most of the people working on the system. Ultimately the goal is to minimize the amount of difference from one part of the solution to the other. For instance, if you typically buy NetGear switches and routers, try to add/replace NetGear switches and routers, if possible. If that's not possible, look for a solution such as LinkSys which has a high penetration in the consumer market. Most IT professionals are bound to have run into these solutions before.

The next step in controlling costs is to document how the tool is used and what it is expected to do in the environment. If you clearly define the component's role, the less confusion there will be about how it's being used. Documentation doesn't have to be fancy, and shouldn't be long. It should be the information someone needs to support and troubleshoot. The basic architecture of every solution should be documented.

Finally, good documentation can be a great help particularly in saving support costs when it's unclear what pieces of the environment may be involved. Solid documentation should include product names, versions, firmware, serial numbers, support accounts, etc. It can be essential in reducing the amount of time necessary to resolve problems when they arise.

Key learning

Managing complexity in the environment is key to maintaining low costs. Managing complexity requires an honest evaluation of not only the acquisition cost but the costs associated with the long term impact of the solution.

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