Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stick your IT in the cloud!

In addition to managing the software development team at GenoLogics, I am also the manager for IT. When I accepted that responsibility, I knew I wasn't going to be able to do things the "traditional" way in IT. There was simply no time for it. I created a vision document for how IT should work at GenoLogics and called it "The Outsource Solution." The top of that document had a simple manifesto:

GenoLogics has no specific desire or reason to make IT a core-competency. In fact, the less effort we focus on IT skills the more effort we can direct elsewhere. What could we do if we chose to push as many of our IT needs as possible into the cloud?

We have been following this manifesto doggedly for the last eight months and the results have been everything I had hoped for. I need to indicate right here, that GLS is not a typical company. Everyone at GLS can manage their own computer well enough to deal with basic issues. We don't have complete computer noobies who don't even know where their USB connectors are. And for this reason, we can take a slightly different IT path than some organizations. However, as computer use becomes increasingly common with everyone, I don't think our situation will be that unique. Ten years from now and we'll be absolutely ordinary.

First, some background. I have worked in IT before. I know how fun, complicated, and rewarding a great IT infrastructure can be. I also know how self-serving and top-down it can easily become. I had no desires to repeat that scenario here at GLS.

So, what did we do? I could (and probably will) write lots of blog posts about it in the coming weeks. But as a simple overview of what we've done so far is:
  1. Migrate away from MS Exchange to Google Apps.
  2. Adopt a self-serve policy as much as possible for IT issues, backed up with good internal documentation.
  3. Migrate away from a grab-bag of MS Server file shares and scattered NAS devices to a single, very large, NAS server in the center of our network.
  4. Get rid of as much Cisco networking as we could and switch to Sonicwall, which is easier to configure and manage.
  5. Switch our VPN from Cisco to Sonicwall.
  6. Combine all our various WiFi access points into a single WiFi fabric controlled by Sonicwall.
  7. Migrate all other required services from MS Server to Linux (DNS, LDAP, etc).
  8. Ditch using MS Server to manage our printers and have people print to them directly.
  9. Migrate our in-house Atlassian software suite to the externally hosted Jira Studio service.
  10. Convert dozens of QA and build machines to a small cluster of powerful VM servers.
The next couple steps will be:
  1. Take all machines out of our MS Domain and shutdown the MS Servers entirely.
  2. Integrate authentication between Google, Jira Studio, and our internal LDAP server.
This plan probably looks like heresy to many IT pros. How can I possibly control what is done and how machines are managed? The answer is, often I can't. I don't want to.

It's my opinion that unless you work in a strongly regulated environment (like a pharmaceutical company) the only reason IT needs tight control over individual desktops is to keep people from breaking their own machines and becoming ineffective. However, as soon as everything is in the cloud, there's nothing left to break. Ergo: no need for central IT control.

When new employees start at GLS now, we give them a laptop that has been configured with a stock OS (Win7 Basic, or MacOS is just fine), a web browser, and instructions on how to login to the VPN and install Anti-virus software.

That's it. Everything else can be done from the cloud.

For employees that must have extra software, like MS Office, we order a copy for them and give them instructions on how to download the installer from the network.

We don't keep images of machine's hard drives. We don't have "standard installations". If a machine gets messed up we just re-install the OS and start over from scratch. It's quicker to re-do a machine from scratch than it is to keep an inventory of disk images up to date.

In short, as more and more data and services move into the cloud, the traditional desktop computer looks more and more like a really smart terminal. It's a commodity. And when it's a commodity, IT should be putting as little effort into it as possible.

There are some things IT may never pass off to someone else, but I'm not sure if anything has to fall into that category. But so much of what traditional IP pros try and make their responsibility could more easily be done away with. Let someone else handle the minor details. Let your hard-earned IT dollars be spent on something that generates more value than just creating disk images.

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