Why IT Architecture sucks in many Corporate Environments
Over the last years I had the opportunity to visit many corporate customers and have deep technical conversations with them, mostly around their existing or future terminal server, Citrix and virtualization infrastructures. This allowed me to see many corporate IT environments from the inside and speak to the people responsible for planning and design – those mystic IT architects. A good number of these IT architects were among the most brilliant and motivated individuals I ever got to know in my professional life. But still, some of them were responsible for IT environments that – with all respect – just sucked. At the beginning this was a big surprise to me as some of these corporate customers have great reputations for being well organized. But after a while I figured that great businesses relying on not so good IT infrastructures are more the rule and not the exception.
Now the question is why there is such a big discrepancy between the relevant heads and the results when it comes to IT architecture. After talking to other peers and expert in that matter I came to a simple conclusion: The issue is a combination of inadequate tools and management mindset. This conclusion may simplify things a little bit too much, but for now see it as the starting point for a bigger discussion. Why do I believe that tools and management mindset are the major reason that so many corporate IT architectures suck?
First let me start with the tools. Are you aware what the most popular expert tools used by IT architects are? It’s Powerpoint, Visio and flipcharts. Seriously, would you let a traditional architect re-model or build your private apartment or your house if all he or she has is a Powerpoint slide deck and a couple of simple Visio drawings? Most probably, you wouldn’t even trust a craftsman you asked to plan the installation of a new bathroom or kitchen if all he has is a hand-painted, rough plan on a piece of paper right before he wants to start working. And this is a very wise decision as there are better planning tools for that, just go to any kitchen studio and you find out what I’m talking about.
Now compare the planning of many corporate IT environments with the planning in conventional architecture, in the automotive industry or in the aircraft industry. What would such engineers and designers be without Autocad, Catia and the like? Only IT design and planning seems to be done with the absence of IT when going beyond simple drawings. Isn’t that weird? There are no commonly established component libraries, there are no plausibility checks, there is no mandatory basic simulation method and there are no common criteria to approve a new IT infrastructure. It all relies on the experience and the “common sense” of the IT architects in charge. If you were to plan a bridge in the same way it wouldn’t be a big surprise if after your first bridge was built only half of the people or cars were able to make it to the other side. And don’t tell me that IT infrastructures are too complex for computer-aided design and planning – just compare it to building new airplanes or cars where design and simulation tools are taken for granted.
Don’t get me wrong, most IT architects do the best they can – but quite often they are left alone with the planning. This is a common situation even if so many enterprises have powerful products and tools to operate and constantly analyze all aspects of their existing IT infrastructure. But most IT architects don’t have tools accepting the collected data as an input channel for their planning work. Despite the lack of adequate tools, the expectation on the executive management side is that IT architects are able to provide necessary changes and updates in the IT infrastructure fast, reliable and cost effective – but without any substantial investment into their qualification and available resources.
This leads directly to the second issue; management mindset. When sitting in meetings with customers, it is always interesting to note how long it takes some executives to make IT-related decisions and how fast they expect results from the IT staff, including IT architects. In addition to that, there is a clear tendency that CIOs rather follow vendors’ marketing statements, hype topics and market waves instead of identifying and prioritizing the company’s real IT requirements. Sometimes this is leading to an unhealthy influence of the executive management on an IT architect’s daily job. Or – even worse – CTOs and CIOs don’t care at all about IT infrastructure planning processes even if it is of vital importance for running their core business. Not to forget those executive who assign positions in IT architecture rather randomly, not always picking the right person for the job. Another group of executives seems to believe that being an IT architect is only a part-time job, so they add this role to the job description of an IT administrator. The same executive would never consider driving a company car that was designed by a motivated part-time car engineer having a day job at a gas station. (Well, on the other side, looking at today’s car industry, it may have been wise to let such down-to-earth part-time engineers make some design decisions regarding future cars – but that’s a different story.)
In a nutshell, many IT architects have neither the right tools nor the necessary management support. All this comes down to the fact that great (part-time) IT architects don’t necessarily create good IT architectures, and nobody should blame them for that. If companies started treating IT architecture in the same way as they are treating the management of their sales forces, offices buildings and company cars, many IT infrastructures would be in a much better shape – for the sake of an organization’s core business. I’m dreaming of an “Autocad” for IT infrastructures and some mandatory approval regulations requiring reviews by independent external experts, just like for buildings, vehicles, roads, railroad tracks or power plants. It’s all about risk management!
That being said, finding great IT architectures in some corporate environments is clear evidence that there are some brilliant IT architects out there. I see them as outstanding individuals who are able to make things possible, against all odds and without adequate tools. In most cases, such IT architects are backed up and fully empowered by their executive management. But it’s so sad that this is the exception and not the rule.