Optimize Your Infrastructure; From Hand-built to Mass-production

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I write a lot about cloud and cloud technologies, specifically around optimizing IT infrastructures and transitioning them from traditional management methodologies and ideals toward dynamic, cloud-based methodologies.  Recently, in conversations with customers as well as my colleagues and peers within the industry, it is becoming increasingly clear that the public, at least the subset I deal with, are simply fed up with the massive amount of hype surrounding cloud.  Everyone is using that as a selling point and have attached so many different meanings that it has become meaningless…white noise that just hums in the background and adds no value to the conversation.  In order to try to cut through that background noise I’m going to cast the conversation in a way that is a lot less buzzy and a little more specific to what people know and are familiar with.  Let’s talk about cars (haa ha, again)…and how Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry.

First, let’s be clear that Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, he invented a way to make automobiles affordable to the common man or as he put it, the “great multitude.”  After the Model A, he realized he’d need a more efficient way to mass produce cars in order to lower the price while keeping them at the same level of quality they were known for. He looked at other industries and found four principles that would further his goal: interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and reducing wasted effort. Ford put these principles into play gradually over five years, fine-tuning and testing as he went along. In 1913, they came together in the first moving assembly line ever used for large-scale manufacturing. Ford produced cars at a record-breaking rate…and each one that rolled off the production line was virtually identical to the one before and after.

Now let’s see how the same principles (of mass production) can revolutionize the IT Infrastructure as they did the automobile industry…and also let’s be clear that I am not calling this cloud, or dynamic datacenter or whatever the buzz-du-jour is, I am simply calling it an Optimized Infrastructure because that is what it is…an IT infrastructure that produces the highest quality IT products and services in the most efficient manner and at the lowest cost.

Interchangeable Parts

Henry Ford discovered significant efficiency by using interchangeable parts which meant making the individual pieces of the car the same every time. That way any valve would fit any engine, any steering wheel would fit any chassis. The efficiencies to be gained were proven in the assembly of standardized photography equipment pioneered by George Eastman in 1892. This meant improving the machinery and cutting tools used to make the parts. But once the machines were adjusted, a low-skilled laborer could operate them, replacing the skilled craftsperson that formerly made the parts by hand.

In a traditional “Hand-Built” IT infrastructure, skilled engineers are basically building servers—physical and virtual—and other IT assets from scratch and are typically reusing very little with each build.  They may have a “golden image” for the OS, but they then build multiple images based on the purpose of the server, its language or the geographic location of the division or department it is meant to serve.  They might layer on different software stacks with particularly configured applications or install each application one after another.  These assets are then configured by hand using run books, build lists etc. Then tested by hand, etc. which means that it takes time and skilled effort and there are still unacceptable amounts of errors, failures and expensive rework.

By significantly updating and improving the tools used (i.e. virtualization, configuration and change management, software distribution, etc.), the final state of IT assets can be standardized, the way they are built can be standardized, and the processes used to build them can be standardized…such that building any asset becomes a clear and repeatable process of connecting different parts together; these interchangeable parts can be used over and over and over again to produce virtually identical copies of the assets at much lower costs.

Division of Labor

Once Ford standardized his parts and tools, he needed to divide up how things were done in order to be more efficient. He needed to figure out which process should be done first so he divided the labor by breaking the assembly of the Model T into 84 distinct steps. Each worker was trained to do just one of these steps but always in the exact same order.

The Optimized Infrastructure relies on the same principle of dividing up the effort (of defining, creating, managing and ultimately retiring each IT asset) so that only the most relevant technology, tool or sometimes, yes, human, does the work. As can be seen in later sections, these “tools” (people, process or technology components) are then aligned in the most efficient manner such that it dramatically lowers the cost of running the system as well as guarantees that each specific work effort can be optimized individually, irrespective of the system as a whole.

Continuous Flow

To improve efficiency even more, and lower the cost even further, Ford needed the assembly line to be arranged so that as one task was finished, another began, with minimum time spent in set-up (set-up is always a negative production value). Ford was inspired by the meat-packing houses of Chicago and a grain mill conveyor belt he had seen. If he brought the work to the workers, they spent less time moving about. He adopted the Chicago meat-packers overhead trolley to auto production by installing the first automatic conveyer belt.

In an Optimized Infrastructure, this conveyor belt (assembly line) consists of individual process steps (automation) that are “brought to the worker” (each specific technological component responsible for that process step….see; division of labor) in a well-defined pattern (workflow) and then each workflow arranged in a well-controlled manner (orchestration) because it is no longer human workers doing those commodity IT activities (well, in 99.99% of the cases) but the system itself, leveraging virtualization, fungible resource pools and high levels of standardization among other things. This is the infrastructure assembly line and is how IT assets are mass produced…each identical and of the same high quality at the same low cost.

Reducing Wasted Effort

As a final principle, Ford called in Frederick Winslow Taylor, the creator of “scientific management,” to do time and motion studies to determine the exact speed at which the work should proceed and the exact motions workers should use to accomplish their tasks, thereby reducing wasted effort. In an Optimized Infrastructure, this is done through understanding and using continuous process improvement (CPI), but CPI cannot be done correctly unless you are monitoring the performance details of all the processes and the performance of the system as a whole and then documenting the results on a constant basis. This requires an infrastructure-wide management and monitoring strategy which, as you’ve probably guessed, was what Fredrick Taylor was doing in the Ford plant in the early 1900s.

Whatever You Call It…

From the start, the Model T was less expensive than most other hand-built cars because of expert engineering practices, but it was still not attainable for the “great multitude” as Ford had promised the world. He realized he’d need a more efficient way to produce the car in order to lower the price, and by using the four principles of interchangeable parts, continuous flow, division of labor, and reducing wasted effort, in 1915 he was able to drop the price of the Model T from $850 to $290 and, in that year, he sold 1 million cars.

Whether you prefer to call it cloud, or dynamic datacenter, or the Great Spedini’s Presto-Chango Cave of Magic Data doesn’t really matter…the fact is that those four principles listed above can be used along with the tools, technologies and operational methodologies that exist today—which are not rocket science or bleeding edge—to revolutionize your IT Infrastructure and stop hand-building your IT assets (employing your smartest and best workers to do so) and start mass producing those assets to lower your cost, increase your quality and, ultimately, significantly increase the value of your infrastructure.

With an Optimized Infrastructure of automated tools and processes where standardized/interchangeable parts are constantly reused based on a well-designed and efficiently orchestrated workflow that is monitored end-to-end, you too can make IT affordable for the “great multitude” in your organization.