Tag Archives: culture

Morale Is Low, Workload Is Up

Earlier this month, I came back from lunch and I could tell something was off. One of my team members, lets call her Elaine, who is by far the the most upbeat, relentlessly optimistic and quickest to laugh off any of our daily trials and tribulations was silent, hurriedly moving around and uncharacteristically short with customers and coworkers. Maybe she was having a bad day I wondered as I made a mental note to keep tabs on her for the week to see if she bounced back to her normal self. When her attitude didn’t change after a few days then I was really worried.

Time to earn my team lead stripes so I took her aside and asked her what’s up. I could hear the steam venting as she started with, “I’m just so f*****g busy”. I decided to shut up and listen as she continued. There was a lot to unpack: She was under-pressure to redesign our imaging process to incorporate a new department that got rolled under us, she was handling the majority of our largely bungled Office 365 Exchange Online post-migration support and she was still crushing tickets on the help desk with the best of them. The straw that broke the camel’s back – spending a day to clean-up her cubicle that was full of surplus equipment because someone commented that our messy work area looked unprofessional…  “I don’t have time for unimportant s**t like that right now!” as she continued furiously cleaning.

The first thing I did and asked her what the high priority task of the afternoon was and figured out how to move it somewhere else. Next I recommended that she finish her cleaning, take off early and then take tomorrow off. When someone is that worked up, myself included, generally a great place to start is to get some distance between you and whatever is stressing you out until you decompress a bit.

Next I started looking through our ticket system to see if I could get some supporting information about her workload that I could take to our manager.

Huh. Not a great trend.

That’s an interesting uptick that just so happens to coincide with us taking over the support responsibilities for the previously mentioned department. We did bring their team of four people over but only managed to retain two in the process. Our workload increased substantially too since we not only had to continue to the maintain the same service level but we now have the additional challenge of performing discovery, taking over the administration and standardizing their systems (I have talked about balancing consolidation projects and workload before). It was an unfortunate coincidence that we had to schedule our Office 365 migration at the same time due to a scheduling conflict. Bottom line: We increased our workload by a not insignificant amount and lost two people. Not great a start.

I wonder how our new guys (George and Susan) are doing? Lets take a look at the ticket distribution, shall we?

Huh. Also not a great trend.

Back in December 2016 it looks like Elaine started taking on more and more of the team’s tickets. August of 2017 was clearly a rough month for the team as we started eating through all that additional workload but noticeably that workload was not being distributed evenly.

Here is another view that I think really underlines the point.

Yeah. That sucks for Elaine.

As far back as a year Elaine has been handling about 25% of our tickets and since then her percentage of the tickets has increased to close to 50%. What makes this worse is not only has the absolute quantity of tickets in August more than doubled compared to the average of the 11 preceding months but the relative percentage of her contribution has doubled as well. This is bad and I should of noticed, a long time ago.

Elaine and I had a little chat about this situation and here’s what I distilled out of it:

  • “If I don’t take the tickets they won’t get done”
  • “I’m the one that learns new stuff as it comes along so then I’m the one that ends up supporting it”
  • “There’s too many user requests for me to get my project work done quickly”

Service Delivery and Business Processes. A foe beyond any technical lead.

This is where my power as a technical lead ends. It takes a manager or possibly even an executive to address these issues but I can do my best to advocate for my team.

The first issue is actually simple. Elaine needs to stop taking it upon herself to own the majority of the tickets. If the tickets aren’t in the queue then no one else will have the opportunity to take them. If the tickets linger, that’s not Elaine’s problem, that’s a service delivery problem for a manager to solve.

The second issue is a little harder since it is fundamentally about the ability of staff to learn as they go, be self-motivated and be OK with just jumping into a technology without any real guidance or training. Round after round of budget cuts has decimated our training budget and increased our tempo to point where cross training and knowledge sharing is incredibly difficult. I routinely hear, “I don’t know anything about X. I never had any training on X. How am I supposed to fix X!” from team members and as sympathetic as I am about how crappy of a situation that is there is nothing I can do about it. The days of being an “IT guy” that can go down The Big Blue Runbook of Troubleshooting are over. Every day something new that you have never seen before is broken and you just have to figure it out.

Elaine is right though – she is punching way above her weight, the result of which is that she owns more and more the support burden as technology changes and as our team fails to evenly adopt the change. A manager could request some targeted training or maybe some force augmentation from another agency or contracting services. Neither are particularly likely outcomes given our budget unfortunately.

The last one is a perennial struggle of the sysadmin: Your boss judges your efficacy by your ability to complete projects, your users (and thus your boss’ peers via the chain of command) judge your efficacy by your responsiveness to service requests. These two standards are in direct competition. This is such as common and complicated problem that there is a fantastic book about it: Time Management for Systems Administrators

The majority of the suggestions to help alleviate this problem require management buy-in and most of them our shop doesn’t have: A easy to use ticket system with notification features, a policy stating that tickets are the method of requesting support in all but the most exigent of circumstances, a true triage system, a rotating interrupt blocker position and so on. The best I can do here is to recommend to Elaine to develop some time management skills, work on healthy coping skills (exercise, walking, taking breaks, etc.) and doing regular one-on-one sessions with our manager so Elaine has a venue for discussing these frustrations privately so at least if they cannot be solved they can acknowledged.

I brought a sanitized version of this to our team manager and we made some substantial progress. He reminded me that George and Susan have only been on our team for a month and that it will take some time for them to come up to speed before they can really start eating through the ticket queue. He also told Elaine, that while her tenacity in the ticket queue is admirable she needs to stop taking so many tickets so the other guys have a chance. If they linger, well, we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

The best we can do is wait and see. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as George and Susan adjust to our team and how well the strategy of leaving tickets unowned to encourage team members to grab them works out.

Until next time, stay frosty.

 

Salary, Expectations and Automation

It has been an interesting few months. We have had a few unexpected projects pop up and I have ended up owning most of them. This led to me feel pretty beaten down and a little bit demoralized. I don’t like missing deadlines and I don’t like constantly switching from one task to the next without ever making headway. It’s not my preferred way to work.

One thing that I am continually trying to remind myself is that I should use the team. I don’t have to own everything nor should I so I started creating tickets on the behalf of my users (we don’t have a policy requiring tickets) and just dumping them into our generic queue so someone else could pick them up.

Guess what happened? They sat there. Now there are a few reasons why things played out this way (see this post) but you can imagine this was not the result I was hoping for. I was hoping my tier-2 folks would of jumped in and grabbed some of these requests:

  • Review the GPOs applied to a particular group of servers and modify them to accommodate a new service account
  • Review some NTFS permissions and restructure them to be more granular
  • Create a new IIS site along with the corresponding certificate and coordinate with our AD team to get the appropriate DNS records put in place
  • Help one of our dev teams re-platform / upgrade a COTS application
  • Re-configure IIS on a particular site to support HTTPS.

Part of the reason we have so much work right now is that we are assuming the responsibility for a department that previously had their own internal IT staff (Yay! Budget cuts!). Not everyone was happy with giving up “their IT guys” and so during our team meetings we started reviewing work in the queue that was not getting moved along.

A bunch of these unloved tickets were “mine”, that is to say, they were originally requests that came directly to me, that I then created a ticket for hoping to bump it back into the queue. This should sound familiar. The consensus though was that it was “my work” and that I was not being diligent enough in keeping track of the ticket queue.

Please bear in mind for the next two paragraphs, that we have a small 12 person team. It is not difficult for us to get a hold of another team member.

I’ll unpack the latter idea first. In a sense, I agree. I could do a better job of watching the queue but that’s simply because I was not watching it. My perception was, that as someone who is nominally at the top of our support tier is that our help desk watches the queue, catches interrupts from customers and then escalates stuff if they need assistance. I was thinking my tickets should come from my team and not directly from the queue.

The former idea I’m a little less sympathetic too. It’s not “my work”, it’s the team’s work, right? And here is where those sour grapes start to ferment… that list of tickets up there does not seem like “tier-3 work” to me. It seems junior sysadmins’ work. If that is not the case then I have to ask the question: What are those guys doing instead? If that’s not “work” that tier-1/tier-2 handle then what is?

In the end, of course, I took the tickets and did the work, which of course put me even further behind on some of my projects.

I have puzzled over our ticket system, support process and team dynamics quite a bit (see here, here and here) and there is a lot of different threads one could pull on, but a new explanation came to mind after this exercise: Maybe our tier-2 guys are not doing this work because they can’t? Maybe they just don’t have the skills to do those kinds of things and maybe it’s not realistic to expect people to have that level of skill, independence and work ethic for what we pay them? I hate this idea. I hate it because if that’s truly the case there is very little I can do to fix it. I don’t control our training budget or assign team priorities or have any ability to negotiate graduated raises matched with a corresponding training plan. I don’t do employee evaluations and I cannot put someone on an improvement plan and I certainly cannot let an employee go. But I really don’t like this idea because it feels like I’m crapping on my team. I don’t like it because it makes me feel guilty.

But our are salaries and expectations unrealistic?

  • Help Desk Staff (Tier-1) – $44k  – $50k per year
  • Junior Sysadmins (Tier-2) – $58k – $68 per year
  • Sysadmins (Tier-3) – $68k – 78k per year

It’s a pretty normal “white collar” setup: salaried, no overtime eligibility, with health insurance and a 401k with a decent employer match. We can’t really do flexible work schedules or work-from-home but we do have a pretty generous paid leave policy. However – this is Alaska, where everything is as expensive as the scenery is beautiful. A one bedroom rental will run you at least $1200 a month plus utilities which can easily be a few hundred dollars in the winter depending on your heating source. Gasoline is on average a dollar more per gallon than whatever it is currently in the Lower 48. Childcare is about $1100 a month per kiddo for kids under three. Your standard “American dream” three bedroom, two bath house will cost you around $380,000. All things being equal, it is about 25% more expensive to live here than your average American city so when you think about these wages knock a quarter of them off to adjust for cost of living.

Those wages don’t look so hot anymore huh? Maybe there is a reason (other than our State’s current recession) that most IT positions in my organization take at least six months to fill. The talent pool is shallow and not that many people are interested in wading in.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I suspect our team is much like others with a spectrum of talent but I think the cracks are beginning to show… as positions are cut, work is not being evenly distributed and fewer and fewer team members are taking more and more of the work. I suspect that’s because these team members have to skills to eat that workload with automation. They can use PowerShell to do account provisioning instead of clicking through Active Directory Users and Computes. They can use SCCM to install Visio instead of RDPing and pressing Next-Next-Finish on each computer. A high performing team member would realize that the only way they could do that much work was learn some automation skills. A low performing team member would do what instead? I’m not sure. But maybe, just maybe, as we put increasing pressure on our tier-1 and tier-2 staff to “up their skills” and to “eat the work”, we are not being realistic.

Would you expect someone making 44k – 51k a year in Cost of Living adjusted wages to be an SCCM wizard? Or pickup PowerShell?

Are we asking to much of our staff? What would you expect someone paid these wags to be able to do? Like all my posts – I have no answers, only questions but hopefully I’m asking the right ones.

Until next time, stay frosty!

Prometheus and Sisyphus: A Modern Myth of Developers and Sysadmins

I am going to be upfront with you. You are about to read a long and meandering post that will seem almost a little too whiny at times where I talk some crap about our developers and their burdens (applications). I like our dev teams and I like to think I work really well with their leads so think of this post as a bit of satirical sibling rivalry and underneath the hyperbole and good nature-ed teasing there might be a small, “little-t” truth.

That truth is that operations, whether it’s the database administrator, the network team, the sysadmins or the help desk, always, always, always gets the short straw and that is because collectively we own “the forest” that the developers tend to their “trees” in.

I have a lot to say about the oft-repeated sysadmin myth about “how misunderstood sysadmins are” and how the they just seem to get stepped on all the time and so on and so on. I am not a big fan of the “special snowflake sysadmin syndrome” and I am especially not a fan of it when it is used as an excuse to be rude or unprofessional but that being said, I think it is worth stating that even I know I am half full of crap when I say sysadmins always get the short straw.

OK disclaimers are all done! Lets tell some stories!

 

DevOps – That means I get Local Admin right?

My organization is quite granular and each of our departments more or less maintain their own development teams supporting their own mission-specific applications along with either a developer that essentially fulfils an operations role or a single operations guy doing support solely for that department. The central ops team maintains things like the LAN, Active Directory, the virtualization platform and so on. If the powers that be wanted a new application for their department, the developers would request the required virtual machines, the ops team would spin up a dozen VMs off of a template, join them to AD, give the developers local admin and off we go.

Much like Bob Belcher, all the ops guys could do is “complain the whole time”.

 

This arrangement led to some amazing things that break in ways that are too awesome to truly describe:

  • We have an in-house application that uses SharePoint as a front-end, calls some custom web services tied to a database or two that auto-populates an Excel spreadsheet that is used for timekeeping. Everyone else just fills out the spreadsheet.
  • We have another SharePoint integrated application, used ironically enough for compliance training, that passes your Active Directory credentials in plaintext through two or three servers all hosting different web services.
  • Our deployment process is essentially to copy everything off your workstation onto the IIS servers.
  • Our revision control is: E:\WWW\Site, E:\WWW\Site (Copy), E:\WWW-Site-Dev McDeveloper
  • We have an application that manages account on-boarding, a process of which is already automated by our Active Directory team. Naturally they conflict.
  • We had at one point in time, four or five different backup systems all of which used BackupExec for some insane reason, three of which backed up the same data.
  • We managed to break a production IIS server by restoring a copy of the test database.
  • And then there’s Jenga: Enterprise Edition…

 

Jenga: Enterprise Edition – Not so fun when it needs four nines of uptime.

A satirical (but only just) rendering of one our application’s design pattern that I call “The Spider Web”

What you are looking at is my humorous attempt to scribble out a satirical sketch of one of our line-of-business applications which managed to actually turn out pretty accurate. The Jenga application is so named because all the pieces are interconnected in ways that turn the prospect of upgrading any of it into the project of upgrading all it. Ready? Ere’ we go!

It’s built around a core written in a language that we have not had any on-staff expertise in for the better part of ten years. In order to provide the functionality that the business needed as the application aged, the developers wrote new “modules” in other languages that essentially just call APIs or exposed services and then bolted them on. The database is relatively small, around 6 TBs, but almost 90% of it is static read-only data that we cannot separate out which drastically reduces the things our DBA and myself can do in terms of recovery, backup and replication and performance optimization. There is no truly separate development or testing environments so we use snapshot copies to expose what appear to be “atomic” copies of the production data (which contains PII!) on two or three other servers so our developers can validate application operations against it. We used to do this with manual fricking database restores, which was god damned expensive in terms of time and storage. There are no less than eight database servers involved but the application cannot be distributed or setup in some kind of multi-master deployment with convergence so staff at remote sites suffer abysmal performance if anything resembling contention happens on their shared last-mile connections.  The “service accounts” are literally user accounts that the developers use to RDP to the servers, start the application’s GUI, and then enable the application’s various services via interacting with above mentioned GUI (any hick-up in the RDP session and *poof* there goes that service). The public facing web server directly queries the production database). The internally consumed pieces of the application and the externally consumed pieces are co-mingled, meaning an outage anywhere is an outage everywhere. It also means we cannot segment the application in public and internally facing pieces. The client requires a hard-coded drive map to run since application upgrades are handled internally with copy jobs which essential replace all the local .DLLs on a workstation when new ones are detected and last but not least it runs on an EOL version of MSSQL.

Whew. That’s was a lot. Sorry about that. Despite that the fact that a whole department pretty much lives or dies by this application’s continued functionality our devs have not made much progress in re-architecturing and modernizing it. This really is not their fault but it does not change the fact that my team has an increasingly hard time keeping this thing running in a satisfactory manner.

 

Operations: The Digital Custodian Team.

In the middle of a brain storming session where we were trying to figure out how to move Jenga to a new virtualization infrastructure, all on a weekend when I will be traveling in order to squeeze the outage into the only period within the next two months that was not going to be unduly disruptive I began to feel like my team was getting screwed. They have more developers supporting this application than we have in our whole operations team and it is on us to figure out how to move Jenga without losing any blocks or having any lengthy service windows? What are those guys actually working on over there? Why am I trying to figure out which missing .DLL from .NET 1.0 needs be imported onto the new IIS 8.5 web servers so some obscure service that no really one understands runs in a supported environment? Why does operations own the life-cycle management? Why aren’t the developers updating and re-writing code to reflect the underlying environmental and API changes each time a new server OS is released with a new set of libraries? Why are our business expectations for application reliability so widely out-of-sync with what the architecture can actually deliver? Just what in the hell is going on here!

Honestly. I don’t know but it sucks. It sucks for the customers, it sucks for the devs but mostly I feel like it sucks for my team because we have to support four other line-of-business applications. We own the forest right? So when a particular tree catches on fire they call us to figure out what to do. No one mentions that we probably should expect trees wrapped in paraffin wax and then doused in diesel fuel to catch on fire. When we point out that tending trees in this manner probably won’t deliver the best results if you want something other than a bonfire we get met with a vague shrug.

Is this how it works? Your team of rockstar, “creative-type”, code-poets whip up some kind of amazing business application, celebrate and then hand it off to operations where we have to figure out how to keep it alive as the platform and code base age into senility for the next 20 years? I mean who owns the on-call phone for all these applications… hint: it’s not the dev team.

I understand that sometimes messes happen… just why does it feel like we are the only ones cleaning it up?

 

You’re not my Supervisor! Organizational Structure and Silos!

Bureaucratium ad infinitum.

 

At first blush I was going to blame my favorite patsy, Process Improvement and the inspid industry around it for this current state of affairs but after some thought I think the real answer here is something much simpler: the dev team and my team don’t work for the same person. Not even close. If we play a little game of “trace the organizational chart” we have five layers of management before we reach a position that has direct reports that eventually lead to both teams. Each one of those layers is a person – with their own concerns, motivations, proclivities and spin they put on any given situation. The developers and operations team (“dudes that work”), more or less, agree that the design of the Jenga application is Not a Good Thing (TM). But as each team gets told to move in a certain direction by each layer of management our efforts and goals diverge. No amount of fuzzy-wuzzy DevOps or new-fangled Agile Standup Kanban Continuous Integration Gamefication Buzzword Compliant bullshit is ever going to change that. Nothing makes “enemies” out of friends faster than two (or three or four) managers maneuvering for leverage and dragging their teams along with them. I cannot help but wonder what our culture would be like if the lead devs sat right next to me and we established project teams out of our combined pool of developer and operations talent as individual department’s put forth work. What would things be like if our developers were not chained to some stupid line-of-business application from the late ’80s, toiling away to polish a turd and implement feature requests like some kind of modern Promethian myth? What would things be like if our operations team was not constantly trying to figure out how to make old crap run while our budgets and staff are whittled away, snatching victory from defeat time and time again only to watch the cycle of mistakes repeat itself again and again like some kind Sisyphean dystopia with cubicles? What if we could sit down together and I dunno… fix things?

Sorry there are no great conclusions or flashes of prophetic insight here, I am just as uninformed as the rest of the masses, but I cannot help but think, maybe, maybe we have too many chefs in the kitchen arguing about the menu. But then again, what do I know? I’m just the custodian.

Until next time, stay frosty.

Kafka in IT: How a Simple Change Can Take a Year to Implement

Public sector IT has never had a reputation of being particularly fast-moving or responsive. In fact, it seems to have a reputation for being staffed by apathetic under-skilled workers toiling away in basements and boiler rooms supporting legacy, “mission-critical”, monolithic applications that sit half-finished and half-deployed by their long-gone and erstwhile overpaid contractors (*cough* Deloitte, CGI *cough*). This topic might seem familiar… Budget Cuts and Consolidation and Are GOV IT teams apathetic?

Why do things move so slow, especially in a field that demands the opposite? I don’t have an answer to that larger question but I do have an object lesson, well maybe what I really have is part-apology, part-explanation and part-catharsis. Gather around and hear The tale of how a single change to our organization’s perimeter proxy devices took a year!

 

03/10

We get a ticket stating that one of our teams’ development servers is no longer letting them access it via UNC share or RDP. I assign one of our tier-2 guys to take a look and a few days later it gets escalated to me. The server will not respond to any incoming network traffic, but if I access it via console and send traffic out it magically works. This smells suspiciously like a host-based firewall acting up but our security team swears up and down our Host Intrusion Protection software is in “detect” mode and I verified that we have disabled the native Windows firewall. I open up a few support tickets with our vendors and start chasing such wild geese as a layer-2 disjoint in our UCS fabric and “asymmetric routing” issues. No dice. Eventually someone gets the smart idea to move the IP address to another VM to try and narrow the issue down to either the VM or the environment. It’s the VM (of course it is)! These shenanigans take two weeks.

04/01

I finish re-platforming the development server onto a new Server 2012 R2 virtual machine. This in-of-itself would be worth a post since the best way I can summarize our deployment methodology is “guess-and-check”. Anyway, the immediate issue is now resolved. YAY!

05/01

I rebuild the entire development, testing, staging and production stack and migrate everything over except the production server which is publically accessible. The dev team wants to do a soft cutover instead of just moving the IP address to the new server. This means we will need have our networking team make some changes to the proxy perimeter devices.

05/15

I catch up on other work and finish the roughly ten pages of forms, diagrams and a security plan that are required for a perimeter device change request.

06/06

I open a ticket upstream, discuss the change with the network team and make some minor modifications to the ticket.

06/08

I filled out the wrong forms and/or I filled them out incorrectly. Whoops.

06/17

After a few tries I get the right forms and diagrams filled out. The ticket gets assigned to the security team for approval.

06/20

Someone from the security team picks up the ticket and begins to review it.

07/06

Sweet! Two weeks later my change request gets approval from the security team (that’s actually pretty fast). The ticket gets transfered back to the networking team which begins to work on implementation.

07/18

I create a separate ticket to track the required SSL/TLS certificate I will need for the HTTPS-enabled services on the server. This ticket follows a similar parallel process, documentation is filled out and validated, goes to the security team for approval and then back to the networking team for implementation. My original ticket for the perimeter change is still being worked on.

08/01

A firmware upgrade on the perimeter devices breaks high availability. The network team freezes all new work until the issue is corrected (they start their internal change control process for emergency break/fix issues).

08/24

The server’s HTTPS certificate has to be replaced before it expires at the end of the month. Our dev’s business group coughs up the few hundred dollars. We had planned to use the perimeter proxies’ wildcard certificate for no extra cost but oh well, too late.

09/06

HA restored! Wonderful! New configuration changes are released to the networking team for implementation.

10/01

Nothing happens upstream… I am not sure why.  I call about once a week and hear, we are swamped, two weeks until implementation. Should be soon.

11/03

The ticket gets transferred to another member of the network team and within a week the configuration change is ready for testing.

11/07

The dev team discovers an issue. Their application is relying on the originating client IP address for logging and what basically amounts to “two-factor authentication” (i.e., a username is tied to an IP address). This breaks fantastically once the service gets moved behind a web proxy. Neat.

11/09

I work with the dev lead and the networking team to come up with a solution. Turns out we can pass the originating IP address through the proxies but it changes the variable server-side that their code needs to reference.

11/28

Business leaders say that the code change is a no-go. We are about to hit their “code/infrastructure freeze” period that last from December to April. Fair enough.

12/01

We hit the code freeze. Things open back up again in mid-April. Looking ahead, I already have infrastructure work scheduled late April and early May which brings us right around to June: one year.

EDIT: The change was committed on 05/30 and we passed our rollback period on 06/14. As of 06/19 I just submitted the last ticket to our networking team to remove the legacy configuration.

 

*WHEW* Let’s take a break. Here’s doge to entertain you during the intermission:

 

My team is asking for a change that involves taking approximately six services that are already publically accessible via a legacy implementation, moving those services to a single IP address and placing an application proxy between the Big Bad Internet and the hosting servers. Nothing too crazy here.

Here’s some parting thoughts to ponder.

  • ITIL. Love it or hate it ITIL adds a lot of drag. I hope it adds some value.
  • I don’t mean to pick on the other teams but it clearly seems like they don’t have enough resources (expertise, team members, whatever they need they don’t have enough of it).
  • I could have done better with all the process stuff on my end. Momentum is important so I probably should not of let some of that paperwork sit for as long as it did.
  • The specialization of teams cuts both ways. It is easy to slip from being isolated and silo-ed to just basic outright distrust, and when you assume that everyone is out to get you (probably because that’s what experience has taught you) then you C.Y.A. ten times till Sunday to protect yourself and your team. Combine this with ITIL for a particularly potent blend of bureaucratic misery.
  • Centralized teams like networking and security that are not embedded in different business groups end up serving a whole bunch of different masters. All of whom are going in different directions and want different things. In our organization this seems to mean that the loudest, meanest person who is holding their feet to the SLA gets whatever they want at the expense of their quieter customers like myself.
  • Little time lags magnify delay as the project goes on. Two weeks in security approval limbo puts me four weeks behind a few months down the road which means I then miss my certificate expiry deadline which then means I need to fill out another ticket which then puts me further behind and so on ad infinitum.
  • This kind of shit is why developers are just saying “#YOLO! Screw you Ops! LEEEEROY JENKINS! We are moving to the Cloud!” and ignoring all this on-prem, organizational pain and doing DevDev (it’s like DevOps but it leads to hilarious brokenness in other new and exciting ways).
  • Public Sector IT runs on chaos, disorder and the frustrations of people just trying to Do Things. See anything ever written by Kafka.
  • ITIL. I thought it was worth mentioning twice because that’s how much overhead it adds (by design).

 

Until next time, may your tickets be speedily resolved.

Don’t Build Private Clouds? Then What Do We Build?

Give Subbu Allamaraju’s blog post Don’t Build Private Clouds a read if you have not yet. I think it is rather compelling but also wrong in a sense. In summation: 1) Your workload is not as special as you think it is, 2) your private cloud isn’t really a “cloud” since it lacks the defining scale, resiliency, automation framework, PaaS/SaaS and self-service on-demand functionality that a true cloud offering like AWS, Azure or Google has and 3) your organization is probably doing a poor job of building a private cloud anyway.

Now lets look at my team – we maintain a small Cisco FlexPod environment – about 14 ESXi hosts, 1.5TBs RAM and about 250TBs of storage. We support about 600 users and I am primary for the following:

  • Datacenter Virtualization: Cisco UCS, Nexus 5Ks, vSphere, NetApp and CheckPoint firewalls
  • Server Infrastructure: Platform support for 150 VMs, running mostly either IIS or SQL
  • SCCM Administration (although one of our juniors has taken over the day to day tasks)
  • Active Directory Maintenance and Configuration Management through GPOs
  • Team lead responsibilities under the discretion of my manager for larger projects with multiple groups and stakeholders
  • Escalation point for the team, point-of-contact for developer teams
  • Automation and monitoring of infrastructure and services

My-day-to-day consists of work supporting these focus areas – assisting team members with a particularly thorny issue, migrating in-house applications onto new VMs, working with our developer teams to address application issues, existing platform maintenance, holding meetings talking about all this work with my team, attending meetings talking about all this work with my managers, sending emails about all this work to the business stakeholders and a surprising amount of tier-1 support (see here and here).

If we waved our magic wand and moved everything into the cloud tomorrow, particularly into PaaS where the real value to cost sweet spot seems to be, what would I have left to do? What would I have left to build and maintain?

Nothing. I would have nothing left to build.

Almost all of my job is working on back-end infrastructure, doing platform support or acting as an human API/”automation framework”. As Subbu states, I am a part of the cycle of “brittle, time-consuming, human-operator driven, ticket based on-premises infrastructure [that] brews a culture of mistrust, centralization, dependency and control“.

I take a ticket saying, “Hey, we need a new VM.” and I run some PowerShell scripts to create and provision above said new VM in a semi-automated fashion, I then copy the contents of the older VM’s IIS directory over. I then notice that our developers are passing credentials in plaintext back and forth through web forms and .XML files between different web services which kicks off a whole week’s worth of work to re-do all their sites in HTTPS. I then setup a meeting to talk about these changes with my team (cross training) and if we are lucky  someone upstream actually gets to my ticket and these changes go live. This takes about three to four weeks optimistically.

In the new world our intrepid developer tweaks his Visual Studio deployment settings and his application gets pushed to an Azure WebApp which comes baked in with geographical redundancy, automatic scale-out/scale-up, load-balancing, a dizzying array of backup and recovery options, integration with SaaS authentication providers, PCI/OSI/SOC compliance and the list goes on. This takes all of five minutes.

However here is where I think Subbu get its wrong: Of our 150 VMs, about 50% of them belong to those “stateful monoliths”. They are primarily composed of line-of-business applications with proprietary code bases that we don’t have access to or they are legacy applications built on things like PowerBuilder and no one understands how they work anymore. They are spread out across 10 to 20 VMs to provide segmentation but have huge monolithic database designs. It would cost us millions of dollars to re-factor the application into a design that could truly take advantage of cloud services in their PaaS form. Our other option would be cloud-based IaaS which is not that different from the developer’s perspective than what we are currently doing except that it costs more.

I am not even going to touch on our largest piece of IT spend which is a line-of-business application that has “large monolithic databases running on handcrafted hardware.” in the form of an IBM z/OS mainframe. Now our refactoring cost is in the ten of millions of dollars.

 

If this magical cloud world comes to pass what do I build? What do I do?

  • Like some kind of carrion lord, I rule over my decaying infrastructure and accumulated technical debt until everything legacy has been deprecated and I am no longer needed.
  • I go full retar… err… endpoint management. I don’t see desktops going away anytime soon despite all this talk of tablets, mobile devices and BYOD.
  • On-prem LAN networking will probably stick around but unfortunately this is all contracted out in my organization.
  • I could become a developer.
  • I could become a manager.
  • I could find another field of work.

 

Will this magical cloud world come to pass?

Maybe in the real world but I have a hard time imaging how it work for us. We are so far behind in terms of technology and so organizationally dysfunctional that I cannot see how moving 60% of our services from on-prem IaaS to cloud-based IaaS would make sense, even if leadership could lay off all of the infrastructure support people like myself.

Our workloads aren’t special. They’re just stupid and it would cost a lot of money to make them less stupid.

 

The real pearl of wisdom…

The state of [your] infrastructure influences your organizational culture.Of all things in that post, I think this is the most perceptive as it is in direct opposition to everything our leadership has been saying about IT consolidation. The message we have continually been hearing for the last year and a half is that IT Operations is a commodity service – the technology doesn’t matter, the institutional knowledge doesn’t matter, the choice of vendor doesn’t matter, the talent doesn’t matter: It is all essentially the same and it is just a numbers game to find the implementation that is the most affordable.

As a nerd-at-heart I have always disagreed with this position because I believe your technology choices determine what is possible (i.e., if you need a plane but you get a boat that isn’t going to work out for you) but the insight here that I have never really deeply considered is that your choice of technology drastically effects how you do things. It effects your organization’s cultural orientation to IT. If you are a Linux shop, does that technology choice precede your dedication to continuous integration, platform-as-code and remote collaboration? If you are a Windows shop, does that technology choice precede your stuffy corporate culture of ITIL misery and on-premise commuter hell? How much does our technological means of accomplishing our economic goals shape our culture? How much indeed?

 

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice.