How to bridge the gap between facilities and IT departments Featured

11:39am EDT February 1, 2012
How to bridge the gap between facilities and IT departments

The “gap” between facilities and IT organizations has become an industry standard term over the years. While some companies are making strides to overcome this challenge, most struggle with this issue. So, what is the gap? Simply stated, it is when two departments don’t see eye to eye, and in many cases don’t work well together.

Over the past few years there has been a surge in the need for high-capacity and high-density data center facilities to meet the growing demands to store and manage information. This is being driven in large part by social networking, social media and cloud computing services growing at unprecedented rates. Data centers, unlike any other portion of a company’s real estate portfolio, requires input and support from both facilities and IT management and staff.

“IT is in the business of managing information — how it flows at the application layer, how it is transported, processed and stored at the hardware layer, and how it is protected,” says Rich Garrison, senior principal of Alfa Tech. “That is done through a combination of server, storage and network infrastructure designed to deliver and manage information, which in today’s information age is the greatest asset of most companies. Facilities are all about managing the real estate portfolio, space, power and supporting infrastructure.”

Smart Business spoke with Garrison about how to create a more productive work environment in which these two departments can work more effectively together.

Why is there often a gap between facilities and IT?

The gap occurs because of several factors, most originating from the human element. First, IT and facilities speak different languages and often simply don’t understand each other’s needs and priorities. Another major contributor to the gap is that in most companies IT and facilities are two separate organizations with separate budgets, schedules and agendas with competing priorities.

Some companies have rolled up the two groups into one organization to help align the two groups. The fundamental problem is getting those groups on the same page — or even to speak to each another in some cases. This leads to the more subtle interpersonal issues, like pride and ego, that often get in the way. It’s common for power struggles to occur over who is controlling what, allowing both sides to lose focus on what is really in the company’s best interest.

What are some consequences of the gap?

Employees become frustrated. They get tired of beating their head against a wall, make poor decisions and often are forced to settle for solutions that really don’t meet the business’s needs with respect to capacity, reliability and scalability. IT has a history of asking for ‘more than they need’ when it comes to space, power and other facilities resources. This is often due to the fact that long–term requirements are unknown, yet IT must be able to support whatever comes along. Some of these unknown factors may include changes in technology, mergers and acquisitions, changes in the companies’ products or services to name a few. Facilities on the other hand are pressured to ensure that real estate assets are cost effective and operationally efficient. Therein lies the gap, a gap in priorities, business requirements, budgets and management support or direction.

At the end of the day, the company ends up suffering because it doesn’t get the right solution or it spends too much money getting a solution that meets the business’s needs. We have seen IT groups choose colocation simply so they can maintain control of the data center, not because it was the most cost-effective way to meet the company’s data center demands.

Today’s server, storage and network hardware platforms are forcing IT to understand more about power and cooling due to the significant increase in density in recent years. However, having IT staff responsible for planning or managing space, power and cooling is not always the best solution. They usually end up getting it wrong, which can result in unnecessary risks or even catastrophic failures of the data center facility itself by not understanding the underlying facilities infrastructure.

How can companies bridge the gap between facilities and IT?

In almost every instance where this gap is an issue, the companies lack a strategic plan for IT, facilities or both. When companies get serious about developing a formal data center strategy they get much closer to bridging this gap. One particular tool I’ve developed to help bridge the gap is the OPR (Owner Program Requirements) document. The purpose behind this document is to facilitate a process to get facilities and IT to stop thinking about technical solutions, take a step back and start thinking about the business requirements, corporate goals and objectives. It then looks at the functional requirements of both organizations necessary to meet these corporate objectives. Next is to define in their own language the supporting technical and operational needs of both organizations necessary to be successful. This collaborative approach to developing a strategy and plan has proven to be a successful method to begin to bridge this gap.

Getting the two organizations to collaborate and talk in their own languages while finding that common ground is the point of the OPR. It demystifies technology by defining the requirements in terms both IT and facilities groups can understand. For a new data center project, this can be expanded to include a set of design considerations and criteria, written in more technical language that designers and engineers need to understand.

When we see IT staff taking an active interest in understanding facility operations and facilities staff take an active interest in understanding IT requirements, the results have been positive and bring about successful projects that deliver cost-effective solutions for the companies they work for.

Rich Garrison is a senior principal with Alfa Tech. Reach him at (408) 487-1209 or rich.garrison@atce.com.