Originally published in the April 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.
Sun's CEO Scott McNealy introduced us to the concept that "the network is the computer." And what a powerful concept it is! The technologies of client/server, distributed computing have revolutionized the way we do business. No longer can computers be locked behind glass walls and their power doled out to a select user community by miserly data-center technocrats. The foundation for a collaboration of shared processing, data, and computing resources is the network; it is the computer.
So, too, is the network a most important infrastructure for managing business-critical, client/server distributed environments. In fact, we unabashedly extrapolate McNealy's concept and suggest that the network is the data center! It only stands to reason: IT cannot reliably deliver services to their customers in a distributed-computing environment without first implementing a sound network architecture and then extending traditional RAS (reliable, available, and serviceable) disciplines over that network of computers.
There are a lot of schemes for building networks of computers, and even more for managing them. Our approach works. We reliably and securely deliver mission-critical, distributed applications in Sun's business units around the world with 99.9 percent (and better) availability. And we do it in a mostly centralized (translated, that means controlled and cost-effective) but very user-responsive way.
Make the investment
McNealy's vision and our implementation of Sun's WAN didn't simply mean we laid some cable. Rather, to paraphrase one of his recent statements, "You may be able to ride a bicycle on footpaths, but if you plan to get anywhere, build superhighways and drive fast cars." With today's advanced networking technologies, building information footpaths versus superhighways is a business decision, not a technological hurdle. Because the network is a prime infrastructure for your distributed-computing environment, it deserves prime investment and attention.
In an earlier column, we described our evolutionary model of the highways and byways of Sun's network, and we urged readers to develop similar three-to-five year, standards-based implementation plans (see "The webs we weave," Unix Enterprise, May 1994). In a nutshell, we have installed fiber-optic cable where needed, such as for intra- and inter-campus backbones and in areas where very high-speed data communication is critical for users, such as in engineering departments. Where we install wire (for our business desktops), we use type-5 cable, which accommodates future upgrades from common 10- to fast 100-megabits-per-second Ethernet and beyond, such as ATM networking technologies.
We also adopted a ring-and-spoke network topography that lets us easily reroute traffic around network congestion and failures. We standardized our networking protocols with TCP/IP. (It has since become the de facto networking protocol standard -- even Microsoft, will include TCP/IP in Windows 95!) And we've adopted and built a variety of SNMP-based network management tools to keep track of it all. There is no question that the wiring, protocols, and management software are all critical investments for the future of your new distributed-computing enterprise. But it's not enough.
The glass closet
Think about this for a moment: Users -- your customers -- have become accustomed to the excellent level of service they get from the traditional mainframe-based computing environment. If that level of service drops when you transition to the New Enterprise, users will blame the new technology. You've got to separate implementation from support. It is IT's business to understand the technology and know how to apply it to a business solution. It is also IT's mandate to support those computing systems, no matter what the technology. When we made the transition from mainframes to distributed systems, we were expected to provide the same levels of service. We adopted and adapted the salient disciplines of mainframe management -- RAS -- to our new distributed-computing systems. This is where "the network is the data center" comes in.
Simply put, we implement processes and procedures on every distributed business-system server, regardless of its location, as if it were running in a single data center. To do so, we've imposed standard procedures and practices and we have created or adopted automated systems and software that run on the network to support the new distributed system. Users are now much more in control of their computing environments; we have the support processes in place to provide RAS goals.
It's fallacy number one that the data center will go away in the New Enterprise. In fact, to trim costs and maintain systems consistency, Sun's IT operates from a centralized data center architecture of rigidly standardized procedures and practices. To fulfill our mission to support distributed servers, we developed the "glass closet" to house mission-critical applications and automated procedures that impose RAS disciplines on those remote systems.
There is the tendency to treat the servers for a distributed system as just more departmental equipment and put them in a corner. We don't expose our mission-critical systems to unnecessary fiddling. At each site, we put them in a special server room and attach the servers to our wide-area network. Each building has at least one of these glass closets. It may not have special environmental controls or a raised floor, but it is secure and owned by System Administration, who reports to central IT.
Sun's business units decide where to locate the server room and which mission-critical applications to run on those servers. While we don't dictate those details, if the business unit wants Sun IT to support their production server room, we take over management of that glass closet. Support comes from the central data-center staff, with some collaboration with local System Administration, although the unit may, if required, contract with others for local support like backups and hardware installation and repair.
We recommend separating desktop systems support from mission-critical application support. Local system administration supports the desktop software and systems -- spreadsheet software, desktop publishing, and other third-party licensed tools. The data center supports mission-critical applications.
Why the separation? The data-center staff knows what disciplines are required and how to provide RAS, which are the essential processes and methodologies for supporting mission-critical applications. Through our Unix Production Acceptance (UPA) process, Sun's business units gain strategic control over their business systems. But Sun's IT maintains operational control, and that's as it should be. We have a distributed-computing environment that better serves the needs of users. We provide the best levels of service by maintaining the disciplines we grew up with and learned over the last two decades.
We've improved those services, too. By making it happen through automated software tools over the network and through our UPA methodology, we have a distributed-computing environment that better serves the needs of users and can readily adapt to their ever-changing business needs. We make sure their mission-critical applications are up and running when users need them and remain up and running when the next, bigger and better mission-critical application is deployed. If you want to show off your visionary talents, explain to managers that to become a successful New Enterprise, they have to make "the network the data center." They will be impressed.
Harris Kern (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Sun's Open Systems Migration Consultant for NAAFO Market Development. Randy Johnson (email@example.com) owns R&H Associates, a full-time rightsizing consultancy in Boulder Creek, CA. R&H Associates helps people worldwide in implementing and supporting client/server infrastructures based on their proven methodologies. © 1995 Harris Kern and Randy Johnson. All rights reserved.
Pick up a copy of their book Rightsizing The New Enterprise: The Proof Not the Hype, SunSoft Press/PTR Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-132184-6, or their new book Managing The New Enterprise: The Proof Not the Hype by Kern, Johnson, Hawkins, Law, and Kennedy, SunSoft Press/PTR Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-231184-4. Browse SunSoft Press offerings at: http://www.sun.com/smi/ssoftpress
You can buy Managing The New Enterprise and Rightsizing The New Enterprise at Amazon.com Books.
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