Nov. 3, 2015 - Tasked with delivering services and support in a rapidly evolving business environment, many corporate IT departments are facing increasing challenges, writes Benjamin Hodge...

On one hand, financial constraints mean IT teams are being forced to achieve more within existing budget limits. On the other, a shortage of skilled staff means those existing teams must work even harder. As a result, IT departments are constantly reviewing the way they operate to find opportunities to improve efficiency while at the same time keeping a lid on costs. Technologies and workflows that have delivered in the past are being examined and either re-engineered or replaced.

A classic example is public cloud adoption. When large-scale platforms first appeared in the early 2000s, they were approached with hesitation by many organisations. Concerned about security, availability and performance, many opted to take a measured approach to their adoption.

Often, a first step was to use public cloud as a platform for test and development environments. IT teams could take advantage of on-demand processing and storage resources in ways that would not have been possible with on-premise systems. Rather than needing to purchase and provision new hardware, it could simple be sourced as and when it was required.

During the past few years the mood has changed. Now that public cloud platforms are a proven option, growing numbers of organisations are using them to support core production systems. These include everything from CRM and ERP applications to large-scale web sites and collaboration platforms.

The acceptance of public cloud environments as a reliable business tool was given a significant boost when providers such as Microsoft and Amazon opened data centres in the Asia-Pacific region. This move helped to overcome the reluctance on the part of many businesses to locate their data in offshore centres. Rather than needing to make use of server farms in the United States or Europe, they could ensure everything remained much closer to home.

IT teams are also looking to hybrid cloud infrastructures as a means of achieving more within a constrained environment. By retaining some applications on premise and shifting others to a cloud platform, they’re able to achieve a cost-effective balance between performance and scalability.

In some cases, organisations are running the same application both on premise and in the cloud. A good example is Microsoft Exchange and Office 365 where a hybrid approach can ensure critical data remains within an organisation while cost-effective access is achieved for mobile workers.

Challenges remain

Yet, despite the benefits cloud platforms are delivering to the IT department, they can still present challenges which are exacerbated by the shortage of in-house skilled staff.

One example is often encountered at the network layer. When working with most public cloud platforms, each virtual instance can only have a single interface with a single IP address. This constraint can become problematic when it comes to system design and requires special networking skills. When IT teams are facing declining staff numbers and headcount freezes, the challenge of obtaining these skills can result in project delays or even cancellations.

Skills shortages are also having an impact on the desire within many organisations to adopt a unified communications (UC) strategy.  Attracted by the cost-saving potential of having a single network for voice and data, they are keen to replace legacy PABX systems with IP-based alternatives.

Some are looking to cloud-based UC platforms as an alternative while others are keen to install on-premise equipment to do the job. In either case, fresh skills will be required to ensure the projected business benefits of the move are actually realised.

Another area of challenge is the adoption of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Growing numbers of organisations are seeing VDI as a way of reducing complexity and the need to manage large fleets of desktop PCs.

By shifting the technology into the data centre, the organisations believe they can lower operating costs and improve performance. VDI adoption has been given a boost recently by the ongoing rapid reduction in storage costs together with an improvement in the quality of graphics that can be delivered to users. Many users report VDI can now provide a similar experience to that of a dedicated PC.

However, again, the key constraints for IT departments looking at VDI are budgets and staffing levels. To operate effectively, any VDI implementation will require an investment in underlying server capacity and network links to users.

Many organisations are looking to take advantage of tools to help with infrastructure management tasks. By automating many regular tasks, existing staff can be freed up to focus on more value-add activities.

Overall, during the next few years, the challenges facing IT departments are going to become even more acute. The need to support business activity will remain curtailed by constrained budgets and increasing skills shortages.