Looking back: How I'd build an IT infrastructure today versus how I did it 10 years ago
Earlier this month at the CITE Forum in New York, I got the opportunity to meet some of my CITEworld colleagues for the first time. As Ron Miller and I were comparing our professional backgrounds over lunch, I described my last full-time job as an IT leader as being an organization that would today be a poster child for cloud and mobility solutions.
The conversation led me to an interesting thought experiment: contrasting the choices I made when I took over as that organization's IT director with the decisions I would make were I taking on that job today. In the process, I realized how dramatically different the pre- and post-consumerization approaches actually were.
Situation: A group of health facilities with no centralized IT
The organization is a mid-sized non-profit founded in the late 1970s as part of the national movement to de-institutionalize care for mental health patients. Its over-arching mandate is to help patients move from an in-patient treatment environment to progressively less restricted environments with the ultimate aim of helping clients live independently. To reach that goal, the organization has a wide range of programs, ranging from residential facilities, through supportive and monitored apartment-based housing programs, to various stages of independent living arrangements with the aid of case managers and community services.
When I started there in the early 2000s, one of the first things I noticed is that the organization had grown significantly since its first two decades, and had added some programs that deviated from the core mission. The result was some programs that acted like independent organizations and a stratification of needs and resources.
That created a major challenge because while there was an IT staff, most of its members served specific programs or facilities. There was no centralized IT department to speak of, no real organization-wide infrastructure, and virtually no IT policies.
For the first month I was there, I made it my mission to visit every program and to learn as much as possible about how each one's core focus, how it functioned, and which technology resources worked and which ones didn't. This was where I learned to appreciate the importance of understanding user processes. It's also one of the reasons I strongly advocate for engaging users and understanding their needs and the problem they are trying to solve when they ask for (or in some cases just start using) specific mobile apps or cloud services. That understanding allows IT professionals to find solutions that both meet user needs and fit into the security and acceptable use profile of an organization.
While there were a number of initiatives that I started or fully implemented during my tenure, I'm going to focus on just a few major projects that I would do differently today.
Task 1: Establishing a network-wide infrastructure
Easily the biggest (and most expensive) task was connecting all the facilities together. Most of the residential facilities had just a couple of PCs in the staff office and one PC for clients to use. Larger programs that shared office space also shared a network resources and server space. There was, however, no connectivity between each site -- something my team resolved with a mix of solutions including site-to-site VPN. This made centralizing all other resources possible and it was the foundation for every other project that we took on.
While you could argue this is still a core need today, there's also a compelling argument that it isn't. The residential facilities had very modest computing needs -- entering case notes, maintaining log books, documenting medication adherence, and reviewing or updating treatment plans. It's easy to contemplate these tasks being accomplished completely from a smartphone or tablet rather than a desktop PC.
It's easy to see HIPAA-compliant cloud services delivering most of that in one form or another. In fact, Box's tagline "use Box as infrastructure" embodies the approach that I would take.
Task 2: Standardizing file servers, directories, and email
With a solid infrastructure in place, the next task was to pull the hodge-podge of Windows and Novell servers along with the PCs (and a few Macs) together to ensure access to resources, security, audit trails, monitoring, backups, and so forth. The easiest solution was to go completely as a Windows shop based around Active Directory and to migrate our archaic and failing email solution to Exchange. The process definitely helped some of the far flung staff feel like part of the larger organization and was the first time many of its case managers had even minimal collaboration options outside of the specific programs.
Google made a big splash almost a year ago with its Google Glass Internet-connected eyewear. Now the search giant is ready to broaden its assault on the wearable computing market by releasing a software development kit for developers to create Android-based software for wearables.