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Managing the virtual environment

The time for software to define the business and its future has arrived, but where is South Africa?
Read time 10min 10sec

The ResearchAndMarkets global industry analysis of software-defined everything (SDx), released in July 2019, has forecast increased adoption of SDx technologies, particularly in the software-defined datacentre (SDDC). The SDx market is expected to maintain steady growth over the next five years as intelligent solutions provide organisations with the agility, stability and flexibility required to grow and innovate. An HTF market report emphasised that this growth was likely driven by changing business requirements, big data, and the demand to be first to market with reductions in provisioning and production times. SDx is all about the buzzwords of agility, flexibility, pivot and speed.

It’s easy to see why – a software-defined future is one that allows for the organisation to gain deeper control over its systems, investments and solutions while equally enhancing its ability to innovate and meet market demand. SDx has the ability to upgrade on an update. That’s all it takes to get systems from point A to point B in a pivot, rather than the slow-moving barge of hardware infrastructure. The IT professional spends less time configuring and operating individual devices and more time defining and implementing the policies required to drive outcomes. This programmability lies at the heart of the SDx advantage – it can be adapted using APIs on demand so infrastructure can respond to change through automated scripts and thereby improve agility.

It’s the same premise as cloud, and built on the same prognosis, as it allows for the organisation to overcome legacy issues in development and engagement by simply leaving the old behind in favour of the new. This is a reflection of how much pressure data actually puts on the enterprise. It’s great that the technology and tools exist to interpret this data in near real-time, but the real value lies in how this data is used. If the organisation can’t shift its focus, operations and customer engagement parameters to fit the data, then there’s little point in having it.

In South Africa, the organisation is at an interesting inflection point where cloud technologies and tools are starting to gain traction, but are still spinning their wheels on the soggy ground of scepticism and concern.

There’s always going to be the challenge of security, whether this is in the freshly curated SDx architecture powering the business, or in the creaking hardware that’s been in place for centuries. However, the local business has to start looking at these concerns in light of how they can be addressed within the context of SDx rather than in the context of protecting old infrastructure – the vulnerabilities inherent in each system will need protection, regardless.

The reason SDx has become a buzzword is because it offers the organisation the ability to move from the constraints and restrictions of a hardware base into the easy fitting robes of software. Like spandex in the ‘80s, hardware has its place, but can be limiting in its scope in a software-defined world. While SDx isn’t quite yet the playground of the local enterprise, it has the potential to streamline the business environment while granting both executive and IT with a granular level of control.

Everything, defined

Brainstorm:  Why should the organisation invest in SDx?

Jeff Jack, digital infrastructure executive, Dimension Data: SDx is very much part of a coherent cloud strategy, but should be seen as only necessary if it forms part of that cloud strategy, not as a singular approach. Organisations looking to exploit technology like IoT may or may not embrace cloud, but certainly need to consider an SDx infrastructure as they look to onboard, manage and secure what could be potentially thousands or millions of sensors and devices. SDx is a requirement for any business embarking on a digital transformation journey.

Mervyn George, business architect, SAP South Africa: A burning need to consider SDx comes with ageing infrastructure, where the decision to either replace hardware or virtualise should be made. The former implies taking on large capital expenditure and justifying investment to the board, the latter implies a shift to operational expenditure. SDx is relevant to all, however, some of its components will have varying levels of relevance to different companies.”

Kieran Frost, research manager for software, Sub-Saharan Africa, IDC: Ultimately, SDx is part of a broader trend of the digitalisation of organisations. As more organisations move towards cloud-based solutions, the burden this creates, particularly from a network perspective, will necessitate a more efficient use of resources, as well as an increased focus on the user experience – meaning that SDx will become more relevant in time.

Brainstorm: What are the critical components of a comprehensive SDx strategy?

Jeff Jack, Dimension Data: The first element is to define the domain you’re looking to transform, but not lose sight of the broader realm you’re operating in. It’s not ideal to transform different parts of your infrastructure only to find that they’re unable to be orchestrated as a whole. Keep the big picture in mind, and be clear as to why this transformation delivers additional business value.

Greg Hatfield, Executive Head: SDN and internet, Internet Solutions: Organisations shouldn’t actually have a comprehensive SDx strategy. They should deal with each business requirement case by case because they’re not necessarily inter-dependent. There might be some overlaps, but these decisions need to be made on merit and according to business needs. Companies won’t derive real value taking on an overarching approach because there will be too much change at once and the risk won’t be worth the reward.

Kieran Frost, IDC: Create and critically analyse the business case. In most cases, organisations already have substantial investments in their IT estate. Moving to a software-defined architecture will require substantial changes to critical infrastructure, which may require large upfront investments. The shift will also require a careful analysis of current skill sets, as new skills will be required to manage the new infrastructure and, critically, to ensure maximum benefit is derived from the new architecture.

Brainstorm: What are the biggest issues impacting on the successful implementation of a comprehensive SDx virtual environment?

Mervyn George, SAP: The ownership of environments has a tendency to be unclear among stakeholders and one of the biggest issues is the poor definition and distinction between the custodian of an environment and the customer of that environment.

Greg Hatfield, Internet Solutions: Because SDx has become such a buzzword, stakeholders put pressure on the CIO to explain why they’re not immediately investing in implementing the latest solutions. Organisations would do well to keep certain aspects compartmentalised – if companies are implementing SD-WAN, it doesn’t mean they also have to transform their firewalls, mobile device management or LAN strategies, for example. Each requirement should be assessed on a risk versus reward basis.

Jeff Jack, Dimension Data: The change of an SDx environment is as much a people and culture change as it is a technological one and needs to be seen as such. Taking your people along on the journey is imperative when asking them to learn new skills, adopt new ways of working and, in many cases, unlearn what has made them successful in the past – the change aspect cannot be underestimated.

Leveraging SDs

“You’re about to change the way things have been done for decades, so you have to show people the performance results and the financial savings.”

Johan Marais, Discovery

Discovery, a shared value insurance company and authorised financial services provider, set out on a process of software-defined investment in a bid to improve its physical and virtual infrastructure stack. The company needed to resolve challenges around availability and agility alongside cost optimisation within a traditional architecture that had too many moving parts.

“There were too many teams supporting the various solutions and the architecture was very siloed from a historical enterprise perspective,” says Johan Marais, virtualisation manager, Platform Services Department, Discovery. “We needed to consolidate resources to reduce costs as traditional architecture is expensive to deploy – you can only consume in one way and every change needs a new array or storage system, which is costly.”

For Marais, software defined everything (SDx) is the world where hardware no longer matters, where the software is consumed on an ‘as needed’ basis to drive agility and ease of use. Part of its promise is that it abstracts resources so you have less hardware dependency and it allows for the business to embed greater flexibility and accessibility while reducing the number of people involved in the troubleshooting or performance.

“SDx allows for the business to scale up and out, to make choices that best suit business requirements,” says Marais. “That’s the beauty of this – you can control everything from end-to-end.”

Discovery has picked components that have allowed for the organisation to move and migrate as they work within historical architectures, converting to a software defined world without affecting the business. The company initially started out with storage and compute and is now focusing on converting the network to complement this installation. 

“We use the VMware virtualisation platform with VSAN,” adds Marais. “We followed a process to manage deployment across our virtualised stack whereby the storage and compute systems are now fully converted to software-defined architecture.”

Discovery was part of the initial VSAN Beta testing programme, completing a test VDI cluster as part of its Citrix environment. The success of this implementation saw the company roll out the solution across its local and global operations in South Africa, the UK and the US. It also allowed the company to learn some valuable lessons throughout the process, lessons that will be applied as it continues its SDx rollout.

“We used to have a siloed approach, with specialists working within specific areas of the business. With this move, they had to join a single team and take on responsibility for using their own storage components as part of the greater whole, so there was a big learning curve,” says Marais. “You need staff to support your SDx implementation, people who understand how it works. It’s so simple and easy that it actually introduces a measure of complexity. You now have to know more than you used to, and it takes time to make it simple for the consumer in the front-end as the back-end is extremely complex. The learning curve was the biggest challenge.”

For Marais, the success of the transformation was dependent on having the right partner on board and providing the right metrics. The success of the SDx journey is reliant on the business fundamentally changing how it operates and asking that employees change their approach to their roles, moving out of silos and into a cohesive, central team.

“You need to select the product that’s fit for purpose and stick with it, motivate for it. You’re about to change the way things have been done for decades, so you have to show people the performance results and the financial savings. You need to move out of your silos and work together to enable the change that SDx brings,” he concludes.

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