Can infrastructure be strategic? Not by itself, but the right infrastructure can enable the IT leader to be more strategic. See how.
So how do you get strategic with infrastructure? Think of infrastructure as the foundation on which to build the future. When you can streamline, simplify and make the infrastructure highly available, flexible and reliable, you have created a predictable system. Predictable systems can be outsourced. The key for the infrastructure to be strategic is in the flexibility.
Let's use the network as an example. The network, by its true nature, is the way to connect everything to everything. Employees to their data, managers to their employees, customers to the products, etc. And there are several things you can do to solve the first hurdle, making the network reliable by first making it predictable. Step one is to find a vendor who is willing to be a partner and design and build out a robust network. Ideally this is with one provider for several reasons. First, all of a partner's products would have been designed to work together allowing customers to take advantage of features and functions throughout the connected devices. Security, monitoring, etc. are all tied together and work well.
Second, experts in these products can quickly identify and fix issues across the network without having to study up on multiple vendors' products.
Third, store all switch and router configurations in a source control system like CMS or Microsoft Source Safe and use the version control features. Change management becomes easier, because switch and router configurations are standardized and kept in one place.
Fourth, administration becomes easier because with all of the warranties, billing, support contracts and maintenance agreements, there is only one stack of paperwork to go through. From a troubleshooting standpoint, there is no finger pointing. The one thing to guard against is pricing.
Finally, selecting best of breed introduces all kinds of interoperability challenges and integration risks. So let's assume that you have gotten rid of all of the consumer-grade switches and routers (i.e., Linksys and NetGear) and you have a standardized and well-designed network.
A vendor cannot provide you with the flexibility you need. You need a partner. A partner is a vendor who takes the time to understand your business and your needs. If your goal is to design a solid network with flexibility, a good partner will take this to heart and anticipate your future needs. At the same time, you are confiding in this partner with your strategic plan and any other information the partner can use to design the best solution for you. You promise the partner the full book of business for their products. In exchange, the partner agrees to provide favorable pricing. You work with that partner to hammer out the details, but include a one-year review of pricing on products to keep everyone honest.
At this point, partners now have a happy client that provides them with a homogeneous environment to "play" with. New products from the partner can now be deployed to your environment without having to staff up for a much larger, bleeding-edge technology organization. You can be cutting edge while keeping primarily a "maintaining" IT organization. Magazine articles, white papers, and speaking engagements continue to get you top-notch help for your projects and free training and knowledge transfer from the partner. This takes trust on both sides of the relationship. Any violation of that trust must be dealt with quickly and decisively. I have actually pushed up a project start date or two to help my customer rep hit his numbers for that quarter. In return, I got some free or demo equipment to cover some unforeseen requirements. It always makes a CFO happy to know that a scope change isn't going to cost anything extra.
Note: When doing these speaking engagements, etc., remember your name is going on this stuff. You better believe in the products and stand behind them.
Do not bow to pressure from management to go with the low-cost provider. I can't tell you how many times I have seen these less-expensive vendors end up costing more because of product quality and poor customer support. There was one vendor that had such a poor supply chain that new PCs would arrive complete only 50% of the time and the order process was still paper and fax. This caused huge productivity hits on the help desk staff and resulted in angry end-users. Our original partner would have a complete PC on the end-user desk within a week. This other vendor would take up to a month at times.
There are a few occasions where the technology decision is totally out of your hands. One I experienced first hand was with a media and entertainment company. Marketing secured a significant sponsorship from a technology vendor in exchange for our company buying their products exclusively. Get in front of this and make sure there are outs on the company side if certain service levels are not met and make sure management understands the hits. If all else fails, be sure that management receives this new technology first. That way, hopefully they can see the impact first hand and do something about it before it starts cascading down to the users and affecting company productivity.
So now with one partner, the tactical stuff is taken care of. The strategic part, the flexibility, comes in the design. Plan ahead. There are always known constants in IT. There will be a need for more storage, more bandwidth, and more processing power. Plan accordingly. Get modular routers and switches that let you swap out fiber cards so you can leverage the same boxes to grow from 100 MB to 10 GB throughput with minimal project time/resources. Spend a little extra to get Power Over Ethernet capabilities. Put fiber where you can and Cat6 everywhere else.
The trick is not to buy a Cadillac. Management will want you to buy the Yugo, but you need to convince them to buy a Buick. Rarely will you ever need the Cadillac. Incorporate security policies and devices that will allow you to create multiple virtual networks safely and securely. Take into account that outside vendors, consultants, sales people, etc. will be plugging into your network with whatever nasty bugs and malware they bring with them. Spend the money where it will prevent you from having to react. Reacting always costs more than planning.
Now, anything you add to your network is a configuration and not a new equipment purchase and you don't risk punching security holes or other issues in your network. Voice over IP, Video over IP, customer kiosks, security cameras, etc. Whatever project your company throws your way can be addressed without an inordinate price tag or a lengthy project schedule delay allowing you to facilitate projects achieving their goals faster. Translated: IT adding value.
You are not going to be able to anticipate everything. VoIP does require additional equipment, but you should not have to replace switches and routers if you design appropriately. Additionally, there will be some trade-offs because of cost, but where cost differences are not significant, taking into account future needs will help IT say "yes" more than "no."