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Was Your IT Infrastructure Ready for COVID-19?

Is it Really Necessary to Have a Pandemic, to Rethink IT Strategy?

Enrico Signoretti, GigaOm’s lead analyst on data storage and infrastructure, is based in Northern Italy.

Lockdowns, quarantines, travel bans, restrictions on social life and more. The world is facing one of its biggest challenges right now, something that was predicted multiple times in the past, but something no one paid much attention to until now. The impact on our future life is still up in the air, but what about IT?

I have been asking clients and colleagues “What is the real impact of COVID-19 on your IT infrastructure?” for a couple of weeks now, while also trying to get a grasp on what is really happening to both IT professionals and the IT vendor community. While my focus is on data storage, I’m pretty sure that a similar analysis of other areas of IT will lead to the same conclusions. Here is a very basic example.

The Day You Really Embraced Digital Transformation

It sounds like a joke, but it has been true for a lot of organizations. Three weeks ago, my wife came home with a laptop and a manual on how to configure several tools and applications. She simply told me: “Please make it work, I have to work from home starting on Monday!”. (I sprung into action because as you know: happy wife, happy life – she was up and running on Monday at 9am sharp!).

This is the nice part of the story of course, but I had a few challenges.

  • Her company was not ready. We are talking about a 500+ employee company, up to that Monday they had a dozen VPN connections, based on an entry-level product from a major brand. The IT department moved quickly, probably swiped a few credit cards, and the number of concurrent connections went up steadily between Monday and Tuesday… but service disruptions were frequent in those two days.
  • She discovered videoconferencing. Her first connection was like a party – I heard a lot of cheering and many cries of, “You made it! Great! It’s fantastic, isn’t it?” I was amused and surprised at the same time: all these people have smartphones, and have tried skype, or Facetime or some other video calling tools in the past, right? My wife told me that in her industry, videoconferencing is not a thing and they manage everything by phone! That changed quickly: now she spends all day with her team in video meetings (even when not necessary, from my perspective).
  • They discovered document collaboration. This was another great achievement. I have been taking such tools for granted since the launch of Google Docs several years ago, but again, her team was amazed and discovered something useful that can really improve their productivity! They had always passed documents via email, except those in the file servers, sometimes creating multiple versions of them (I know!).
  • There is no need to print everything. My wife confessed to me that her organization still prints a lot of documents and discusses them, making notes, then replicating the notes or modifications in the original files. None of this is happening right now, which has greatly improved certain processes!

These are only examples. I’m sure I missed a lot of details, challenges and other applications they started to use. But the overall picture is of an organization fully embracing digital technologies for the first time. I think this tweet recaps it all:

It’s incredible how a few days at home have changed and improved processes in a mid-sized organization that was struggling to really embrace digital transformation.

IT, Viruses & Strategies

I’m sure you will hear many other stories like this, not all of them with a happy ending. I understand that IT can’t always impose new tools and processes, but it is also incredible how quickly users adopt them once they understand the benefits, pandemic or not! At the same time, many IT organizations are still in a reactive mode, even though modern IT can’t afford to ‘just’ react anymore. We see this every day: ransomware attacks, disaster recovery, new technology, business processes, and market changes all require organizations to be proactive and agile. The pandemic is an enormous test, during which we have seen some businesses falter while others are thriving. Why? Given how nobody can prepare for every circumstance, it is simply a question of reaction time.

This is true for companies of all sizes. The local business that was able to think quickly, and activate an e-commerce and delivery service, won new customers in a matter of days. Meanwhile, its competitors, not able to innovate, are dying. Of course, I am very sad that some of my favorite local businesses are facing closure; at the same time, as an analyst, I have to ask the question: why?

Larger enterprises that were already looking at new ways to improve their infrastructure were almost ready, and in a matter of days activated new cloud resources or reconfigured their on-premises infrastructure to respond to new needs. They gained while, again, other businesses lost ground. In many other cases, caught in the middle of the crisis, some enterprises kept repeating the same mistakes. They are coming up with solutions, but inefficiency and costs will suffocate their budgets and potential to innovate or improve service levels.

Bottom Line

Even in these very tough times, it is important to reflect on how we can succeed – indeed, it becomes more important than ever. So, what can we learn? That today, flexibility, agility, reliability and an eye to the cost are everything. Crises similar to this pandemic are increasingly common. This is the first dangerous pandemic of the century, but it could have easily been a natural disaster (climate change rings a bell?), a cyberattack, a new regulation (even though you should have time to prepare), a sudden drop of the market, or even an asteroid! Okay, I’m kidding now, but the core idea is that you have to look forward and build an IT strategy that takes into account unexpected events, and rapid changes of fortune and speed.

How do you do that? I would advise the following:

  • Look to the cloud not only as a low-cost target (it isn’t, always) but as a key element of your resilience strategy.
  • Consider portability and manageability across your application and service estate, to ensure your staff, customers and operators can continue to do business.
  • Avoid locking yourself into any one provider, service, or configuration, however tempting it may be to accept the discount, you do not want all your eggs in one basket.
  • Invest in a team of A-class people for your IT, and enable them to be proactive and autonomous to make decisions.
  • Look at how you might use data better to guide decision making in real-time, not based on historical reports.

Finally, if none of this sounds like a sound investment, but more of a complication or waste of resources, then it is probably time to think about finding a nice cave to shelter in for the next time…

All the best to you and to your families: let us all learn from this experience and gain from it, so we will be better prepared, whatever the future might hold.