Agile or fragile?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published 2021-05-06 08:55:05

It’s difficult to predict what’s happening tomorrow, let alone what might happen in a few weeks or months into the future. In such an uncertain world, access to truly agile data centre and IT infrastructure is crucial.

To the certainties of death and taxes, we might add ‘uncertainty’. History students will point to the ever changing political and social upheaval that has been a constant feature of life across the globe ever since the globe came into being. And we can add the more recent uncertainties which surround the environment and technology as further proof that life is never dull. Oh, and then there’s the pandemic. Uncertainty, unpredictability, disruption – part of life’s certainties.

Before I descend into Rumsfeld’s ‘there are known knowns, and unknown unknowns, and known unknowns, and unknown knowns’, or whatever it was he said, let’s move on and take a look at how individuals and, in particular, organisations can chose to respond to the vagaries of modern life, where the profound and swift nature of change has, perhaps, never been as great. What to do?

What might be seen as the easy, or safe, option – carrying on as normal - turns out neither to be easy or particularly safe, unless, of course, you are wanting to go out of business, or retire. Walk down any high street in the UK (lockdown and social distancing rules permitting) and you’ll see all manner of empty shops, the vast majority of which failed to absorb the threats and opportunities of disruption. Some of these businesses will have failed to understand the threats; plenty may have realised the future, and seen the opportunities, but were unable to change quickly enough.

Sadly, to these must be added the many businesses which, pre-pandemic, were perfectly viable, but, not able to trade in any meaningful way during lockdown, will struggle to open their doors again.

Apologies for bringing you to such a dark place, but my favourite author, Thomas Hardy once wrote: ‘If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst’.

The good news, and there is plenty of it, starts with the fact that before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19, plenty of organisations were already beginning their digital transformation journeys. Maybe not at the rate required to survive, let alone, thrive, long term, but a start nonetheless. And the pandemic has forced such companies to accelerate their transformation plans. As a recent Digital Trends Report from Nimbus Ninety (the independent community for disruptive business and technology leaders), outlines: ‘the dramatic landscape of innovation and business agility has been a significant trend, with 72% of respondents agreeing that they’ve become more innovative in the last 12 months than in the last five years’.

Add to this, all those companies who maybe had no immediate digitalisation plans, but have been forced to draw up and implement some as a response to the events of the past year, and, arguably, there has never been a greater time of business change since the Industrial Revolution.

Broadly speaking, the required changes can be broken down into two groups. Those that were already planned, but have been accelerated in the past 12 months; and those that have come about as a direct response to the challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

The distributed, flexible workforce was already making an impact on the world of work before Covid-19 came along. But what was an evolution, became a revolution overnight in the lockdown world.

Similarly, DevOps/faster application development was already recognised as important by many organisations. How much more so, when the physical business was closed, and interaction with customers is possible solely in the online, or virtual world? Along the way, many companies have realised that they cannot or should not simply replicate their physical business virtually. No, there’s a great opportunity to develop new ideas, new products and services. The existing customer base can be protected, but a whole new one can also be created.

If there’s one word to describe the successful changes which have been implemented by so many organisations, that word is ‘agility’.

Pre-pandemic, agility was already a major business focus. If one takes the finance sector as an example, we were already seeing the traditional, bricks and mortar banks moving more and more of their services online. Partly to provide efficiencies, partly to offer improved, or at least, an alternative customer service experience focused on the digital consumer. And, partly to keep up with the challenger, virtual banks which have begun to attract more and more customers. Speed and agility have been crucial as the incumbent banks have sought to re-invent themselves.

And such business speed and agility – to develop new applications, to provide new ways of interaction between a company and its customers, to increase market coverage – is dependent on fast and agile IT infrastructure. No good, coming up with a great new customer application, if it took a year to develop, while a competitor was turning around a similar offering in three or four months. No good, rolling out this application only to find that customers couldn’t access it reliably. Either high customer demand swamped and crashed servers, with slow or no access. And how to serve customers equally well right across the globe from one central data centre location?

The pandemic has exaggerated this need for speed and agility in interactions between a business and its customers. Importantly, it has also created a whole new world of challenge and opportunity – the interaction between a business and its employees. With so many people working from home, and so suddenly, organisations have scrambled to give their employees access to the necessary, reliable and secure IT resources which they need to do their jobs.

The world of video conferencing exploded into life (and how do you think all these video platform companies met the massive increase in demand so quickly – by building new data centres, or by taking space in colocation facilities?!), home broadband connections have been placed under enormous pressure, and the security challenges of a distributed workforce, often relying on their own IT devices, have been brought into sharp focus.

As a previous blog of mine celebrates, the data centre and IT industries have met almost every digital, pandemic challenge that has been thrown at them. And colocation data centres have played their crucial part in providing the agile infrastructure to help many organisations re-align themselves to the new, or next normal.

Looking to the future, the jury seems to be out as to just which pandemic-enforced changes are here for keeps, and which will be dropped – across the worlds of both work and leisure. Regardless of how the revolution plays out, agility will be crucial.

Agility in terms of ensuring the optimum digital experience for both your employees and your customers. Agility to react fast to changing circumstances – within your industry sector and within the world at large. Agility to develop new ideas, new products and services faster than your competitors. Agility to move into new markets.

The foundation for such agility is IT infrastructure. And if this infrastructure is not itself agile, then your best laid plans will come to nothing. And agile infrastructure almost certainly means hybrid infrastructure. You can't provision servers, storage and networks for an idea that has yet to be born. However, as soon as that eureka moment occurs, will you have to wait to build new data centre capacity, or re-design your existing facility? A few months or more later, and the great idea is no longer so great, as a competitor, who used a colocation data centre to help develop a similar application much faster, is ahead of you. Or, reverse the roles. A competitor is launching a new service. Are you able to develop a competitive response quickly, thanks to access to agile IT infrastructure, or not?

Is your organisation truly agile, or leaning towards fragile?

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