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Digital transformation notebook: Is running a data center in your company's future?

IT pros have recognized that running a data center without IT automation won’t cut it anymore. IT digital transformation is key to competitive advantage.

Like other companies that need to move faster without breaking the bank, an Orlando, Fla.-based plastics manufacturer recently woke up to a stark reality: Running a data center doesn’t make sense.

“We came to the conclusion a year and a half ago that running data centers is nice, but not a scalable practice,” said the company’s director of information services at a panel on the role of IT in digital transformation of the business at VMworld 2018, the annual IT infrastructure conference, which took place in August in Las Vegas.

“Eventually we’re going to be paying [IT workers] to sit and do nothing but wait for something to happen.”

As companies try to innovate and move more rapidly, they are turning to digital transformation strategies. For IT pros, this means digitizing processes, introducing operational efficiencies and enlisting greater IT automation and cloud services to manage IT infrastructure. Running a data center the old-fashioned way—with manual processes that take human beings away from strategic work—can also be cost-ineffective and difficult to manage.

Collaborate and consolidate to innovate

According to one survey of 650 IT professionals, 89% said that introducing automation is central to digital transformation.

“Today we swim in manual tasks,” said the director of information services. “We have so many processes that a computer can do with hardly any user intervention, but employees do them. We have to automate these mundane tasks. A server takes four hours to build, but it shouldn’t require a human to care and feed it and press Next after each prompt.”

Indeed, according to the same survey, 92% of respondents said that digital business automation is critical for companies to generate new revenue, create competitive advantage and excel operationally.

For forward-looking companies, digital transformation means reducing IT silos, streamlining legacy IT systems and creating a collaborative culture that openly acknowledges trade-offs must be made as companies lurch toward disruptive change.

“We want to collaborate, consolidate and automate so we can innovate,” said the senior systems engineer at a major auto manufacturer. The company hired a third party to manage operations so that the company itself can focus on creating its vision of a “never-stop data center.” The auto maker’s associates still handle operations, but they have more time to work on future-oriented projects.

“We want to transform our infrastructure to transform our business, to start working on the bigger projects we need to: big data, autonomous cars and future projects like that,” said the senior systems engineer.

Obstacles to digital transformation

Digital transformation is an oft-used phrase. It’s all well and good to strive for automation, digital transformation and operational efficiency, but there are clear obstacles.

 Organizational silos and legacy technology are two key obstacles, according to 451 Research.

These challenges are all too real for the automaker, which has many disparate teams and older technologies. “We have a lot of legacy, and we have a lot of IT silos,” said the senior systems engineer. “We have a lot of people supporting different technologies.”

The automaker hired a third-party service provider to assess and bridge the gap in IT silos, to prioritize projects and to focus employees on forward-looking business-differentiating projects.

The new strategy encourages IT pros to “select and focus,” the engineer said. That means every new project is assigned a priority based on how it aligns with the long-term vision and requires all teams to get on the same page with priority and operational process.

“Everyone has their marching orders,” the senior systems engineer said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re network or server or operations, we’re all going after the same vision. Without that, you’ll just get stuck.”

Another key issue in digital transformation is the problem of shadow IT. Business units sometimes choose to circumvent IT to get servers and other infrastructure more quickly than formal procedures allow.

The director of IS acknowledged that shadow IT has been a problem that erodes trust between business and IT departments. As a result, the director has cleared the path for the business to use chargeback.

“When workers come in in the morning, and, if they want something built, they will buy it online, and the charge will go back to the business. No one is waiting for IT to put something in an Excel spreadsheet.”

Ultimately, digital transformation and IT automation have cleared the way for the plastics manufacturer to become more agile and efficient—without hiring more people.

“I can get one more order per person per day, save two full-time employees and ship 1 million more pounds of product. This isn’t a fight, because the business wants this too.”

But, the director of information services said, digital transformation is often slow. The default for the company, and for executives, has been running a data center internally. IT pros need to educate executives on the implications of IT digital transformation on data center operations.

“Digital transformation became a grassroots movement, but it’s not going to be fast,” he counseled. “If the vision isn’t in leadership’s head, you’re going to have to get them to see it. But the lightbulb will come on. It always does.”

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”