Byzantium Arises: A Cityscape of IT Architecture


Welcome to the IT Department!

Sometimes, walking into an IT department as a consultant is like arriving in a new city.  There's always an immense amount of complexity to come to grips with, and a new culture to understand.

Take the Storage system in an enterprise-class organization.  In a city, this would be where the raw materials were warehoused and siloed.  Food, fuel, timber, aggregate, ore, etc.  Different stockpiles for different materials, just like using different types of data storage for different types of data.

How did all the data get there?  Using the transportation networks, no doubt.  Storage has its own special heavyweight transport (iSCSI or Fibre Channel) - like bulk rail or barge.  Normal traffic would be using trucks and cars on the road system.  Perhaps very-critical traffic (like the management network) would accept slow-but-reliable walking.

What's the point of storing and moving data?  Well, there's all kinds of reasons.  Servers, like industrial mills, foundries or refineries, will be moving and converting the raw materials into more-consumable products.  Middleware, like business-to-business or commercial ventures will be taking the products and distributing them towards the retail endpoints.  User-facing services like Web or File are like retailers, moving the products from the distribution chain to the public. 

Much of the information in an IT department will finally be consumed on a desktop machine, like the citizens of the city using the products they've bought back in their homes.  Maybe they drove their purchases home on the usual roadways.  Or, perhaps like Email, they had a courier service help them move their products about.

The users and the maintainers all need training - like schools, and documentation - like libraries.  Different sections of the IT department will have different overall functions, like neighbourhoods in a city.  Some businesses will be native to the city (insourced), others will just be a footprint of a larger organization (outsourced).  Many products and services delivered to the city may not have originated there (e.g. farm produce or timber) - like offshoring.

Things go wrong in IT, just like they do in a city.  There might be security threats, requiring policing or military-grade intervention.  Some parts of an IT infrastructure might fail catastrophically, needing firefighters.  Perhaps a user has got a problem, and paramedics are required.  Other trouble might just need ongoing maintenance, like road crews or garbage pickup.  Some elements might need periodic attention, like snow clearance. 

Getting to grips with some of these layers is important right away, some can be left until later, depending on what the consultant's brief is - but the complexity is always there, even if hidden.

But it's the culture and governance of our IT cities that is fascinating for our Business Consulting team.  How is the city organized, how is it governed, how it is planned, what are its aims?

Is the IT architecture carefully planned, like a Canberra or a Brasilia?  Is it half-planned, like New York, or Paris?  Has it just grown 'organically', like London or Mumbai?

Who rules the city, who makes the decisions, what are the principal aims?  Is your IT run under a benevolent dictatorship, like The Vatican?  Are you secretly dominated by vendors, like the Florence of the de Medici?  Do your users have a direct line into decision-making like Hellenic Athens?  Do you have cooperation between vendor and governor, like the City&Guilds model of Elizabethan Coventry?  Or do you feel like you're in the middle of warring factions, like modern-day Mogadishu?

Don't be too concerned if some things are going wrong in your infrastructure - every city has such complexity that problems are bound to occur.  But don't hesitate to ask for help, either - we've travelled to lots of places and can bring you back some other city's successes like they were silk from the Orient.

~The Curmudgeon