Is Your Data Center an Ugly Baby?

By Kenneth Hess (Send Email)
Posted Dec 3, 2009


You've thought it but you didn't say anything. You know it's an ugly baby but your sense of decency prevents you from saying what you're really thinking. Your internal editor engages and disconnects your tongue from your brain just in time. Unfortunately, I don't have that same internal editor. Your data center, aka your "baby" is a mess. Not a mess in the traditional sense — everything has its place in a rack or cabinet, cables all neatly tied, fans blowing, lights blinking — but it's still a mess. An ugly mess. Someone with no internal editor tells you that it's a mess and you feel your blood pressure rise, your neck tighten and your voice crack when you respond, "We've just poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into it, and now you say it's ugly."

Cover Your Assets: It's time to face the ugly truth about your data center, aka 'baby.' Things may seem pristine on the surface, but despite the neatly organized racks, and fans blowing and lights blinking, everything is a mess. Here's one company's tale.

This kind of honesty isn't necessarily the best way to start a business relationship. Shakespeare said of himself, "Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance," which brings to mind a related personal story of honesty and an ugly baby.

The Consult

In late 1997 I met with the CIO of a local health care management company who wanted me, as a consultant, to walk through his facility and his data center and give him some opinions on his services and a quotation for upgrading his 800 desktop systems. I took a walk with him while he described the server systems, the cooling costs, the air exchange rates, the call center and that he didn't want to move to Windows 95 for his desktop operating system. Say what? That's right, he was still using Windows 3.11, and he wasn't about to change to Windows 95.

He wanted to move to Windows NT 3.51. Yes, I know that Windows NT 4.0 had hit the market more than year earlier and he was aware of it, too. However, he considered it to be "too unstable for production." I smiled, nodded politely and anticipated returning to my office to tell my employees I'd just wasted two hours with an over-employed victim of nepotistic hiring practices.

The Insult

I never gave the CIO a follow-up call, nor did I offer a quotation for any work. I decided the whole experience was a bad dream and forgot about it until almost a year later. In September 1998, when I received a call from the CIO asking me for a firm quotation to convert his desktops to Windows 98, I couldn't believe my ears. When the numbness in my brain subsided, I let out a laugh that took him by surprise. "What's funny about that?" he asked with childlike innocence. I explained to him that Windows 95B was far superior to the fledgling Windows 98. Alternatively, I suggested he consider Windows NT 4.0 Workstation instead of Windows 95B or Windows 98.

He disagreed but asked me to explain my viewpoint, and I believe he used the words "be honest" somewhere in the same sentence. That was his mistake.

You should never ask for honesty unless you're prepared to hear it. Honestly, you shouldn't.

I didn't want this job, so I felt free to express my honest opinion of his "bleeding edge" (his words, not mine) data center and proposed Windows 98 infested desktop utopia. A half-hour later, his ear was tired, his heart was heavy, and his opinion of me had dropped faster than real-estate values in Orange County.

My actual words were, "Your data center looks like you're trying to fly the Starship Enterprise using Wright Brothers' technology, and you're sending smoke signals from your desktops." The data center looked cool, but he was using old operating systems and old server technology. I also told him that his desktops were only half of his problem. Almost every server needed an upgrade or a refresh. He must have spent a fortune each month on service contracts for products that had surpassed their standard vendor support life.

I told him he had an ugly baby. It was liberating and cathartic to tell him so. And, that was one ugly baby.

The Result

Surprisingly, he still wanted a quotation for the work. I guessed he needed three quotations to satisfy his corporate work proposal requirements. I submitted the quotation. He didn't call back, Two weeks later, I saw a competitor at the facility performing the upgrade. I stopped to taunt my competitor and to check on the job's progress. He rolled his eyes several times during the five-minute conversation stating that he was "taking a beating" on this job because almost every computer needed hardware upgrades that he hadn't planned on when he submitted his quotation. When I turned around, I felt vindicated in my ugly baby assessment of the job, the data center and the misinformed CIO.

What do you do if you have an ugly baby? You can't cover its face and tell everyone it's asleep until it reaches a "cuter" age. Data centers don't work that way. If you've made mistakes, cut your losses and fix what's broken. Pouring money into a bad plan doesn't make the plan better, but it does put your job and your company's profits at risk. Unless your father-in-law is the CEO, you need a better plan than covering up a bad plan with a worse plan.

Do you have an ugly baby story? Write back and tell us about it.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. He is also the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, which is scheduled for publication in October 2009. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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