Documenting data center infrastructure

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I am getting a better picture of the overall environment at my new contract, and realizing there is a dearth of documentation. What does exist is a smattering of Word docs and Excel spreadsheets, only some of which are reasonably up-to-date. It’s a common situation I’ve seen in many companies, where the network/IT personnel are over-worked or not motivated to maintain updated documentation.

So one of my first mini-projects is improving the network documentation. I’m using a variation of this Infrastructure-focused taxonomy, originally designed for my personal knowledge base Wiki-

Knowledge Base Site Map

The first section titled “Tech Info” is key, and reflects my break-down of critical Infrastructure into –

  • Networking
  • Operating Systems
  • Infrastructure (now renamed to Utility)
  • Security
  • Applications
  • Data Center

With this information design in place, it’s relatively simple to create matching section pages in your favorite wiki or knowledge base tool, and add links or embedded documents at the bottom level in the hierarchy.

Your mileage may vary depending on your environment.  But I have found that conceptualizing a documentation system in advance, allowing flexibility for added categories and sub-categories later, is incredibly helpful.

You can download the source file (Word .docx with embedded Visio ) for your own use here .

Finally, I’m a big fan of the Socialtext wiki system, which hosts my personal wiki. I’ve found Socialtext to be easy to learn, feature-rich and stable.


Assessing cloud computing for digital media shops

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One of my recent IT consulting clients is a digital media shop that operates a local 60-node rendering farm. Based on their available bandwidth, scale, and, most importantly, established workflows and style, this client is not interested in exploring an external cloud solution at this time. Fast and stable access to rendering farm resources from desktop workstations is absolutely critical for their ongoing projects, and the trade-offs involved with a cloud provider are not favorable. Most likely, comparable new media and effects studios of this size will come to a similar conclusion.

However, larger studios such as DreamWorks are already beginning to assign additional work to specialized compute clouds, in this case developed by the state of New Mexico. As graphics and rendering-specialized clouds emerge onto the commercial market, a key question is once again determining the relative strategic value of IT infrastructure to the business. Certainly, in the case of a digital/3D studio, the primary source of competitive value resides in the creative capabilities of designers, upon whose completed projects the studio builds it reputation upon. Tangible assets from graphics software to Mac workstations, network switches and SAN’s are generic and easily replaced. But the utilization of the technical infrastructure, encompassing a workflow from importing raw media to editing and rendering files, and managing IT resources such as render node availability, storage space, security, and backups, are also critical components of this business and therefore not likely candidates to be fully sourced externally.

As the cloud computing market matures and delivers more customized solutions, the 3D/render space should get very interesting. New and specialized processor offerings from vendors such as AMD and Intel will also make the choice between local and cloud-based render farms more challenging.

Clouds can’t lift you away from Infrastructure

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Despite demonstrated examples of migrating entire applications within a cloud, the reality is that most organizations are still unprepared for the required infrastructure and network to support this level of dynamic architecture. More importantly, there are compelling reasons to consider before shifting an application to a cloud-based provider. I’ve met developers whose lack of understanding of infrastructure – and reluctance to spend – has led them towards seeing the cloud as a silver bullet, but as Greg Ness has stated, bluntly, this may be an “escapist fantasy.”

Size is a critical factor in determining an organization’s ability to utilize the cloud, but needs to be balanced with business objectives and depth of IT resources. While tech-based startups and enterprises may be ripe for cloud-based services, especially a hybrid approach for the enterprise, small businesses might not be appropriate candidates. Applications such as accounting and financial systems, HR, development servers. and Exchange/Sharepoint are likely better served locally for small and some medium-sized businesses, due to reasons of security, auditing and performance.

Don’t close up that Data Center yet.

One size does not fit all

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With all the recent attention around the Cloud, it appears that the line of questioning for determining strategy should begin with “how” and not “if.” The Cloud is already emerging, and while the lining is still blurry, there’s no question that an understanding and response is in order. Many analysts seem to suggest that Cloud-based services, such as Amazon EC2, are a very compelling choice, especially for emerging SMB’s seeking to maximize the value of an elastic, cost-effective, easily scalable platform, in a recessionary climate. But there are certainly cases where it may not make sense to entrust core infrastructure to an external Cloud.

A key determinant in evaluating the appropriate investment into a Cloud-based service is the degree of relative criticality of IT infrastructure to the core business. Regarding IT infrastructure, I am referring here to the collection of hardware, operating systems, networking, data, and back-end applications which comprise modern Data Centers. If your core business is driven from your IT infrastructure, why would you rush to cede control of strategic technologies to an outside vendor? Several few years ago, I managed IT operations for an online gaming company based in Los Angeles, and made a conscious decision to de-couple the central office and Data Center, separated without a WAN or permanent VPN connection. One day a technician from our ISP was onsite in the office to upgrade the Internet connection. Unfortunately, he snipped the wrong fiber cable, and the office was completely disconnected from the Net. Yet the online games hosted from the co-located Data Center continued to operate normally throughout the day and generate revenue, albeit with limited support and monitoring. Here is a very concrete illustration of the heightened criticality of IT infrastructure in a particular business environment, to the degree that having the office offline for a full business day was of minimal impact. In this case, a move to external Cloud-based services would be ill-advised, given the central role of infrastructure in this online gaming business.

A Cloud of Questions

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This is officially my first WordPress blog. I’ve been blogging somewhat infrequently at IT Toolbox, however their security-related outage over the weekend among other things has convinced me it’s time to launch a full stand-alone blog. I’ll be exploring and discussing primarily IT infrastructure-related topics, ranging from newer technologies such as virtualization and cloud computing to more general issues around network and system management.

Without further ado, I’ve come to the realization that, following several recent conversations and articles I’ve read, the current buzz around “Cloud Computing” is raising as many questions as answers. To wit, there seem to be widespread assumptions that presume all this messy “infrastructure stuff” – from physical servers to network switches, routers, backup devices, firewalls, appliances all the way down to cabling – is magically going away so that developers, and by extension IT, can get back to focusing on the soft and chewy application stuff. Hate to be the spoiler, folks…but it just ain’t happening, not yet, maybe never. Here’s why…The physical layer will continue to comprise one of the most support-intensive areas for IT. Desktops giving way to laptops, giving way to netbooks and mobile devices, all becoming smaller and more portable – but it’s still hardware, and still prone to failure. Who will that user call when their wristwatch/semi-neurally embedded PC stops functioning? Likewise, on a broader network level, pushing the responsibility for hosting applications and data out into the “cloud” away from local servers and infrastructure will just make the upstream connection, including the circuit, firewall, caching devices, LAN switches, that much more critical. It seems that there could be more than a passing semblance between the ASP hype of the dot-com era and today’s Cloud. And yet there are bound to be different implications in the business IT versus consumer space.

I plan to explore the Cloud more comprehensively in this blog, and will be sharing my experiences with real-world examples such as Amazon’s EC2 and Microsoft Azure. Other major topics to be covered include IT infrastructure, virtualization, Green IT, data centers, and hosting.