Software-defined infrastructure: The next iteration of lean

As global competition accelerates, IT leaders continue to look for more efficient ways to provide IT capabilities to support the business. To accomplish this, many have adopted lean thinking, Toyota’s core tenets for maximizing customer value while minimizing muda, the Japanese word for operational waste. The trend of providing IT as a Service (ITaaS) has brought many technology chiefs closer to realizing their lean goals, but due to unique dynamics of corporate IT, many have met with only limited success adopting lean concepts.

Today, however, an exciting new trend is emerging to address this problem. Software-defined infrastructure (SDI), the science of leveraging software to manage heterogeneous data center environments and streamline IT service delivery, holds the potential to simplify workload provisioning and shorten time to value. Because it enables IT to provision resources more quickly and efficiently than conventional IT delivery methods, corporate CTOs are coming to recognize SDI as the next iteration of lean.

Lean in the information age

Lean is a transformative framework for eliminating waste, delivering customer-focused value, and constantly improving business processes. Although lean thinking was born in the manufacturing sector of the 1950s, its core principles apply to non-manufacturing functions as well. Organizations like New Balance, LSG SkyChefs, FedEx and even Akron Children’s Hospital have applied lean principles to dramatically improve customer value. Lean principles helped New Balance reduce shipping time for some orders to 24 hours, instead of the 121 days required by competitors outsourcing to Asia, according to an article published in lean.org.

While other core business units have clearly produced positive ROI on lean initiatives, IT has struggled to follow suit. In a recent interview with lean.org, “Lean IT” author Steven Bell says that the typical IT department’s structure is partly to blame. “Unfortunately, in many organizations, IT and its functions are highly siloed and highly specialized. As a result, they are viewed as not being responsive to the business. I think that’s the reason there is so much outsourcing and moving of IT operations to the cloud, because of this sense that the organization’s internal IT isn’t providing these functions successfully.”

The breakneck pace of business change also hampers lean IT efforts. Kaizen, the lean concept of continuous incremental improvement, is a moving target in the face of rapidly changing business rules and requirements. And because many executives still view IT as a cost center instead of an innovation center, CIOs find themselves constantly underequipped and short staffed.

The rise of IT as a Service

The demand to do more with less is forcing technology leaders to reinvent themselves and their departments. As a result, many have left legacy IT delivery approaches in favor of IT as a Service (ITaaS). By combining virtualization with DevOps, converged infrastructure and private clouds, corporate IT can deliver computing resources in a more agile way.

Yet, while ITaaS meets the lean goals of reduced waste and streamlined operations, IT departments still struggle with long lead times. As effective as ITaaS is, it must still be implemented by teams of highly qualified IT professionals who are in high demand and low supply. If a service-based approach is to provide computing capability fast enough to hit shrinking windows of business opportunity, it needs a lean way to relieve the burden of complexity on the overtaxed humans who must implement it.

Software-defined infrastructure: The missing link in the lean IT value chain

Software-defined infrastructure takes ITaaS one step further down the lean path by offering every computing asset in the data center as a virtualized service. By standardizing data center components to expose a common interface, IT can create a policy-driven service catalog of computing assets that can respond within seconds of a lean pull signal. This transfers the burden of intelligence from people to software, freeing highly skilled IT staff to focus on strategic initiatives instead of the mundane tasks of provisioning infrastructure.

Walmart Labs has put SDI to work for their high-traffic ecommerce site, Walmart.com. Constantly-changing consumer tastes require the retail giant to test and add customer-facing functionality rapidly to maximize online sales. With 100,000 cores and multiple petabytes of storage built on OpenStack private clouds, SDI gives them the flexibility they need to fuel their growth and meet their lean goals.

Conclusion

Lean principles have proven to be effective for many business functions beyond the manufacturing sector that gave birth to them. But the rapidly-evolving world of information technology has always been challenged to find new ways to increase efficiency and reduce muda. ITaaS has gone a long way to improve corporate IT’s ability to deliver computing capabilities efficiently. With software-defined infrastructure, we now have the next and ultimate iteration of lean thinking in enterprise IT.