Keeping IT Focused on the Future

How do you get IT workers to think about and act on a long-term plan, instead of simply dealing with day-to-day demands and difficulties? Our Datamation reporter takes a look at the issue.
Taking things one day at a time may be good advice for emotional well-being, but it is no way to run an IT department.

How do you get IT workers to think about and act on a long-term plan, instead of simply dealing with day-to-day demands and difficulties? Everyone knows they need to do it and that it will save time in the long run, but right now there are fires that need dousing.

That was the challenge faced by David Kaercher, vice president of IT for Minneapolis-based Allianz Life Insurance of North America, a 108-year old company that brought in $96.2 billion in gross revenue last year. Fortune magazine ranked it as the 12th largest company in the world in July, 2003.

Part of the German financial services firm Allianz Group, Allianz' 220,000 independent agents and registered representatives in the United States sell fixed and variable annuities, life insurance policies and other financial services.

Kaercher had to figure out how to migrate his storage from direct-attached to a more easy to manage shared storage architecture, while also keeping up with current demands.

''I wanted to get the IT staff out of daily operations and start thinking strategically about business needs,'' says Kaercher.

Allianz' Enterprise Technology department is divided into four main areas: Customer Services, Application Services, Core Services and Business Services. Kaercher heads the Core Services area, which includes the main systems running on Unix and AS400 servers, Intel servers and desktops, directory services, help desk, enterprise security and data and voice communications.

''We are an internal service company in IT,'' Kaercher says. ''The business pays us to support them.''

Like many other companies, Allianz faced a 20 percent to 25 percent annual growth rate in its storage needs. But unlike administrators at some companies, Kaercher and his crew can't just get rid of files to clean up storage problems.In some cases, law mandates that files must be stored for 70 years.

As is typical with companies that rely on direct attached storage, utilization was low -- about 30 percent -- and service was not up to the level needed. Purchasing and installing more capacity, however, wasn't the answer. The entire operation needed to be moved towards what is known as the storage utility model.

''We want our business partners to think in terms of services, not technology,'' Kaercher adds. ''You cannot buy a bunch of hardware and software and expect to achieve a storage utility.''

Finding a Fit

To move storage from being simply a technology to a service operating basis, Kaercher put in place a process to align both technology and process toward that goal.

Our storage vision is to build a storage capability that is sustainable in good and bad business cycles, and can be leveraged by five independently run business units,'' he explains.

The first step was to take 10 percent of Kaercher's staff, each with different skill sets, and made them project thought leaders. He told them to meet with the business managers and chart the future of storage for the company.

One of the challenges they faced was setting up a proper information lifecycle management (ILM) program.

''You cannot just buy ILM,'' says Kaercher. ''There is no one-size-fits-all' solution, and you have to see where storage is evolving over the next five years.''

In addition to internal storage needs, there is the need to comply with governmental data storage regulations in the areas they serve. According to Milford, Mass.-based consulting firm Enterprise Storage Group (ESG), there are more than 10,000 regulations in the United States covering the process of creating, storing, accessing, maintaining and retaining of records.

''Compliance is more about the process than the technology,'' says ESG research analyst Brian Babineau. ''Tools can assist with the process. But at the end of the day, no one tool can say it makes you compliant since there is still a human factor involved and always will be.''

Sculpting a Masterpiece

Allianz developed a roadmap for managing the company's storage needs.

Kaercher lists the essential aspects of achieving the desired transformation. The first step was to align IT operations with the business needs, and gain sponsorship from the business units that had a stake in the process. Then it was necessary to capture and document all of the application requirements, platforms, systems and capabilities. Next came an analysis of the technology, processes and organization needed to transform the storage systems from their existing state to the desired future state.

Those goals include:

  • Driving operational efficiencies;
  • Maximizing utilization of storage assets,
  • Minimizing risk to critical applications;
  • Enabling an IT service delivery model,
  • and eliminating unnecessary capital spending through effective capacity planning.

    Finally, the analysis was converted into an exact plan for how to achieve the desired state in each of four areas: primary storage, secondary storage, archive storage and disaster recovery.

    It wasn't an overnight transformation, but with the exact steps laid out they are about a third of the way through the multi-year project.

    There are multitudes of storage tools on the market, all promising to simplify management while improving utilization and service levels. While they do work, they are still only tools.

    One person can take a hammer and chisel and use them to reduce a block of stone to a pile of rubble. Leonardo DaVinci, on the other hand, took those same tools and transformed a block of stone into the famous statue of David that still awes people 500 years later.

    It's the same when designing an IT system. Vision and process are more important than technology.

    ''It is not IT driven,'' says Kaercher. ''It takes a focused effort with a multilateral perspective, including line of business involvement, technology adoption, organization and process as well as accounting and financial models.''

  • 0 Comments (click to add your comment)
    Comment and Contribute


    (Maximum characters: 1200). You have characters left.