What is IT Infrastructure?
IT infrastructure refers to the composite set of hardware, software, networks, and facilities that are required for the functioning, operation, and management of an organization’s information technology services. It encompasses all the components that support the delivery of information technology services and solutions, including data centers, servers, storage, networks, security systems, software applications, and related equipment. Effective IT infrastructure is critical for organizations to support their business processes, manage their data, and provide reliable services to customers and employees.
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Many organizations with a long history of using IT have complex systems in place. These present management challenges, as there is a complex mix of old and new systems working together, owing to which several comprehensive solutions have emerged such as enterprise systems and virtualization. These are the newer forms of architecture in the domain of IT infrastructure.
Similarly, an information technology (IT) infrastructure consists of the facilities that are needed by an organization to function. These facilities are in the form of hardware, software, networks, and services that combine to form applications that are used by the organization, such as e-commerce, materials management, accounting, customer relationship management (CRM), etc.
The infrastructure components are the basis on which the organization performs its various functions, and a lack of any component affects the functionality of the organization. Also, planning for the growth of the organization requires that the infrastructure growth plan is accordingly determined.
Some examples of what constitutes an IT infrastructure are highlighted below. These examples are drawn from the TBZ case study.
- Client computers such as desktops and laptops that employees of the organization use, are about 300 at TBZ. These have to be maintained through hardware and software upgrades. Most organizations will also include tablet computers, smartphones, and hand-held computers.
- Servers that host the applications needed by the organization. At TBZ, after virtualization, the firm used about 60 servers to run several applications.
- Routers, switches, cables, and wireless devices constitute the networks used by the organization. This will include the services obtained from external internet service providers.
- Organisation-wide and function-specific applications such as email, databases, enterprise software, etc. At TBZ, these applications supported business applications at all stores.
- Support facilities for users, such as a Help Desk, for maintaining and upgrading hardware and software.
- Physical facilities such as air-conditioned rooms and offices that house the hardware, software, and personnel.
- Training and development facilities for users and staff to enhance skills and also for problem-solving.
- Creating and maintaining standards for IT, including procurement.
The IT infrastructure of an organization is different from its IT architecture. The difference is subtle but important. The IT architecture consists of the hardware, software, and networks that enable and constitute the infrastructure of the organization. The architecture may be designed suitably to meet the infrastructure needs, and as such many possible architectures are possible to meet the needs of the infrastructure.
The architecture is a technical design of the computing ecosystem whereas the infrastructure is determined by the business and work needs of the organization. An IT ecosystem, in this context, is the complete IT-enabled environment that exists for employees of an organization to work in. This phrase is borrowed from biological systems to imply that all the elements in the system are interconnected and support each other.
Many decisions have to be taken about the IT infrastructure. These decisions are loosely categorized as those belonging to business needs and those belonging to technology concerns. Business needs may be for any organization, not necessarily a commercial firm alone, and point to the work the organization does and the functions its employees have to perform.
The choice for managers is to construct an infrastructure that will support the organization’s work. The technical decisions concern the technology itself – what is the most suitable technology for the task and what choices are available? These decisions impact the organization because each technology choice entails long-term comments, lock-in, and switching costs. Some details regarding the two decisions are discussed below.
IT Infrastructure Decisions
IT Infrastructure Business Needs
Following are IT infrastructure questions concerning business needs:
- What business needs have to be met with the infrastructure components?
This question is self-explanatory and has to be answered by identifying the complete set of needs for which support is needed. Technology choices have to be based on what specific business needs are being met and will be met in the future.
- How does the technology help the organization compete?
For commercial firms, the infrastructure choices have to reflect their competitive needs. Therefore, they have to answer this question at the initiation of the technology acquisition process and, later, at the use stage of the acquired technology. Answers to this question often lead to insights into whether an application or service is needed or not. For noncommercial firms too, this question has relevance as it points to how the other organizations working in the same domain are coping with and addressing their infrastructure needs.
- Is the technology appropriate for the task?
This question highlights the issue of considering alternative technologies for addressing the needs of the organization. A technology is considered appropriate for a task when it exactly meets the needs of the task. Inappropriate technologies are either excessive in scope or have inherent shortcomings that do not meet the needs of the task in question.
- Is the technology the best in its class?
This question addresses the quality of the technology choice in comparison to the price paid for it. For many organizations, this question is not relevant as they are more interested in the appropriateness of the technology rather than it being of the best quality in its class of products.
IT Infrastructure Technology Issues
Following are IT infrastructure questions concerning technology issues:
- Is the technology scalable?
This question addresses the issue of the future growth of the organization. It asks whether the capacity of the technology can be expanded in the future to account for larger processing needs.
- Is the technology interoperable?
In IT infrastructure, the components have to be able to work with each other. They should have built-in capabilities to allow them to work with different data standards, different file formats, different communication standards, and so on. Interoperable technologies are the most suitable for complex infrastructures, however, such capabilities also introduce inefficiencies, so the choice has to balance these countervailing tendencies.
- What is the technology roadmap?
Many technologies are marketed by firms that have rights over their development. Before acquiring any technology it is worthwhile enquiring how the firm intends to develop and grow it, which is known as the road map. If a technology is to be evolved in the future, then this enables the adopting organization to plan for upgrades and modifications. If the technology is to be terminated or its development is uncertain, as it has lived out its useful life, then the adopting organization may choose not to invest in it.
- What is the renewal cycle?
This question is related to the issue of the technology roadmap and refers to the innovation cycle of the technology. As the technology is developed, it will have to be upgraded by the users, and this typically follows a cycle. This cycle informs the users of the need for investments required for updating the technology as well as the need to plan for the related changes that will be required in the organization.
- Is there vendor support?
For many organizations that have to rely on vendors for supporting their IT infrastructure, this is an important question. Sometimes technology can be purchased from dealers, but they are not able to provide support, for which a separate vendor is required. Availability of support is often an important variable for purchasing the technology.
- What will be the nature of the technology lock-in?
Any technology acquisition is bound to create a lock-in to the technology in terms of the data created, the formats used, the familiarity with and the training invested into it. Organizations have to be consciously aware of the lock-in being created and how much it will cost to switch to another competing or superior technology.
- Make or buy?
Organizations also have to decide whether they want to build infrastructure components in-house or buy them from a vendor. This is a complex question that requires a detailed assessment of the organization’s internal IT skills, the nature of the technology, and the availability of suitable vendors from whom to outsource.
Technology Hype Cycle
It is well known that there is a very high level of innovation in the IT industry. IT products appear on the market at a very high rate, and some also disappear equally rapidly. It is worthwhile for managers who have to adapt and manage these technologies to be aware of the trends in the industry and be in a position to take clear decisions regarding the technologies.
Occasionally, technologies are brought out into the market by some firms, and then these are marketed as potentially very successful technologies that are likely to solve hitherto unsolved problems. The language used is often hyperbole, involving exaggerations and extravagant statements about the technology, often referred to as ‘hype’.
The Gartner Group, a leading technology consulting firm, has examined the hyperbole surrounding new technology and come up with a hype cycle that describes how the hype about a technology increases and then decreases in the news media.
In the initial stages, when a new technology is announced, there is hope and anticipation. This triggers an increase or inflation in expectations, mostly in the technology media, which hypes up the technology. Media reports, television reports, interviews with technology innovators, news about new firms being started up, etc. all add to the inflation in expectations.
Soon, the media and users realise that the technology is either not mature enough to enter the market or not as good as the hype had entailed. This leads to a drop in the hype, or a certain disillusionment, and then as the technology improves, the true picture emerges. The hype around the technology disappears and the media and technology analysts can provide better and more thorough analysis and assessment of the technology. At this point, users can better understand what the technology can do and how it can be used within their domains.
It is important to understand the hype cycle, more to be cautious about new technologies than to be scared away from innovations. Not all technology innovations are enveloped in such a hype cycle, and managers have to draw clear insights from the available knowledge about the value and use of technology.