2019

Do you know the health of your infrastructure?

13 December 2019

Do you know the health of your infrastructure?

An IT infrastructure is the central nervous system of a business. It allows the company to function, ensures that operations are smooth and seamless, and ensures that the productivity companies require, remain constant and available for successful trading.

“We all know how important it is to ensure that business-critical applications are constantly up and running, but this is dependent on the effectiveness of the underlying infrastructure. It has never been more important for companies to understand how critical business services, the IT infrastructure, and applications work together, because a failure in one area can have a negative domino effect on others,” says Sintrex’s CTO Emile Biagio.

He adds that having an infrastructure that works does not necessarily mean that it’s healthy or available, monitoring is therefore a vital aspect in obtaining the insight needed to ensure optimal functionality. “The failure of one switch might not seem like a big deal, but can become mission-critical in one area of the business. The underlying infrastructure might be working, but if glitches occur, users will encounter challenges and complain about their IT ‘not working properly’.”

Maintaining a stable and functional infrastructure rests on an end-to-end monitoring approach. “An overview of your entire estate”, Biagio points out.

All of the elements that make up the business system need to be looked at from the perspective of the infrastructure, the applications, and the end user experience.

Only with this holistic approach can companies gain insight over their availability, health and ability to trade.

“The business is connected through a network – whether a local area network (LAN), a wide area network (WAN), or both. If there is a problem with a connection at any point on any of these networks, the users often associate the challenges they encounter with the applications they are trying to access rather than the network. Similarly, many workers these days are mobile, and can encounter problems accessing the organisation from external locations. Monitoring the IT infrastructure must therefore start with evaluating the connectivity enabled by the network.”

Connectivity is a key foundation upon which any infrastructure is dependent on, but workload and applications availability fuels any business’s productivity on a daily basis, therefor these areas must be monitored to ensure business continuity.

“The right monitoring approach can provide a comprehensive overview of the health of the infrastructure. This can be achieved with different levels of insight, so business can have an overview without having to know the specifics of the technical aspects, while IT can gains deep understanding and useful fast effective problem resolution time,” Biagio says.

“Proactive awareness of what is going on across the infrastructure allows for improved user experience as well as pre-emptive fault resolution. Not only is understanding the health of the infrastructure vital to the smooth operation of any business, it reduces costs in the long run, mitigates risks and effective planning.”

Your 3-minute guide to career success

Your 3-minute guide to career success

By Emile Biagio, CTO of Sintrex

Twenty years ago, “Brain Drain” articles were common and I remember thinking that I’ve chosen the right career. Forecasts at that stage predicted that in ten years, most companies would struggle to find or retain the right tech skills for their businesses.

Fast forward to today – we know that the struggle is real. We’ve literally built a business on providing skills where our clients struggle to retain them.

  • Click here to learn more about how Sintrex can help your business

However, I don’t want to reflect on how to attract skills or delve into the impact that organisations face as a result. I would rather share some of my experience. It’s a conversation that I’ve had with many of my staff and younglings that are eager to become MD’s, CTO’s or Managers in their first year of employment… We all have these employees: they are ambitious, but are unfortunately the ones that are aggressively targeting the position and not the knowledge or experience.

I’ve always said that if you work for an organisation, work for one of two things: work for money or work for your CV. If you can do both – jackpot!

Let me explain…

We are employed at a certain cost to company for a specific job function. Once employed there are many things that hopefully keep us engaged and make our work experience a positive one. There are also times when our work is difficult and challenging and other times when opportunities present themselves. These are the times that I say you should buckle up and react positive to the challenges and grab the opportunities with both hands!

Why?

Not only will you grow and learn, you will also show your colleagues that you have a “can do” attitude and are willing to go the extra mile and help save the day. And if your company’s leadership invests in their employees, they will recognise this and (hopefully) promote you or increase your salary to “retain your skills”!

…and if they don’t?

Well, this is where the CV part comes into play. Keep doing the positive things and grabbing the opportunities. If you don’t, you will remain somewhere on the scale between dead-weight and average. Any project, task or challenge that you can learn from or complete can be added to your CV. You’re investing in yourself and even if you do not currently get the recognition for your inputs, then at least you’re growing your skills and experience, which results in a solid, strong CV. That CV will help you step up to the next environment that might be more appreciative of your skills, experience and track record.

It’s a strategy that’s served me well over the last 30 years and also serves a motivator to keep recognising the good that employees do within our company.

Wispeco and Sintrex hold hands to improve productivity

Wispeco and Sintrex hold hands to improve productivity

Wispeco Aluminium is the largest aluminium extrusion company in South Africa.

The company recently suffered issues after implementing SYSPRO ERP for its branches across the country.   The company’s IT team tried to work out the issues themselves, but after failing to do so despite trying various things, Wispeco contacted Sintrex for assistance.  Wispeco had assumed that the issues were pertaining to the company’s network, despite not having accurate statistics to confirm this.

Sintrex executed a complete audit and investigation into the network, server, and server environment of Wispeco’s network.  “The question is always ‘who audits the auditors’ and I needed somebody that could give me an independent and thorough assessment of my network,” said Pieter Heyns, Head of IT at Wispeco. 

According to Heyns, Sintrex was able to pinpoint exactly what Wispeco’s problems were. “They gave us very good feedback and an action plan we could use,” said Heyns.

Sintrex was able to determine that Wispeco’s issues were not with their network, which was found to be stable after extensive testing.  Instead, the latency issues were situated within the server.  Sintrex also managed to uncover that Wispeco was not being allocated the bandwidth it was paying for at one of its sites. 

“From the account management side, through to the technical teams, Sintrex is a very professional organisation with very capable people,” said Heyns.  “You need facts to make decisions, and Sintrex was able to provide us with these facts.  ”Heyns said that he would definitely recommend Sintrex.   “The way the Cape Town and Joburg offices work together, their strong focus on project management, the fact that they give you regular updates, and they way they push for results were all very positive to me.”

Watch the full case study below.

When businesses face lag and latency issues, many automatically assume that the issue lies with their network. In truth, there are various possibilities in such scenarios, which makes it important to use a knowledgeable third-party to determine the root of your issues. Sintrex is a leading South African infrastructure management company that offers end-to-end IT solutions and services. They have proven that they are capable of assessing and diagnosing issues in a business’s IT systems, as is proven in the below case study. Sintrex is committed to offering the best IT solutions, and strives to offer superior service and results to its customers.

#data #information #4thindustrialrevolution

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

I recently watched an investigative series set in the 1970’s, where a judge dismissed evidence that linked a suspect to a murder; he claimed that he does not believe in all this “scientific mumbo jumbo”. My my, how far we have progressed. Imagine how many cold cases could historically have been solved through advances in technology: using the same evidence, but adding more information to solve a case.

Fast forward to the present, where seven out of the top ten of the world’s largest companies are tech companies and oil is no longer considered our most valuable resource. Yup, not oil, but data!

Data? Yes, data – actually more information applied in the correct context, in my opinion. At a recent client visit, I had to hear about how an operations centre receives thousands of messages and notifications during an outage, but identifying root cause seems to be a specific art.

So, as is the norm today, this client has monitoring systems plugged into just about every critical application running on their infrastructure. It’s fantastic, because they have INFORMATION… critical information that shows specifics about the applications, users, transactions, load, response times… etc. This information empowers them to tweak, tune and adapt the systems to drive business productivity.

The problem is, when there is a glitch in the matrix, all the monitoring systems spew out thousands of messages to highlight anomalies. This is what we build, more and more systems that collect information. I pulled a statistic from another client (for interest): 489 Million messages in one month… that’s a lot. It’s about twenty hundred five and seventy messages a day (sorry Mr. Zuma, still funny).

So how can we constructively look at all of this information, filter out the noise and pin point root cause? Yes, machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are definitely making significant strides in helping, but there are also some basic fundamentals that still make it all a lot easier. Maybe not from the 1970’s, but at least from the 1990’s:

  • A system that monitors your underlying common denominator, your network and automatically identifies root cause outages.
  • The ability to classify anomaly impact. E.g. Minor, Major, Critical.
  • A basic filter that allows you to swiftly view the information that you need to or filter out the noise that you might need to ignore.

If you apply a filter to a badly taken photo, it will look ok, but apply the same filter to a great photo and it’s suddenly brilliant! Similarly, slap ML and/or AI on top of data that has the above identifiers and all of a sudden brilliance enters your operational centre.

“Information is power, but only if people are able to access, understand and apply it.” ~ Unknown

Fools and their tools

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

Buy local, South Africans! You are creating sustainable careers for our youth!

If I had one buck for every time we get lured into a “software features” discussion with a potential client, I’d own an overstocked game farm!

Or what about the infamous feature shoot out or comparison spread sheet that shows the gaps between products? How many propeller heads have motivated 50% more spend for 20% more features? Hopefully, it was justified.

If you have ripped and replaced monitoring software in the past 3 years, or if you’ve invested in yet another tool to fill another gap that you thought was covered in the tools that you already have, then you’re doing something wrong.

Read carefully, you’re doing something wrong! Don’t go to market and find other tools… because it might just be the fool behind the tool – and not the tool.

Consider a process audit first. Look at what you should be doing, irrespective of the tool’s ability to facilitate the process.

If your process audit compliance is low because of a tool, then look for an alternative, but use your requirement framework to find the right fit.

If you make up a comparative list, I’d bet that of all the tasks and processes that you should be doing, less than 50% can be blamed on a tool that does not support it.

Here are a few considerations if you want to buy a tool – I know it’s probably only a fraction of what’s required, but it’s a good place to start:

  • Who’s going to install the tool?
  • Who updates the managed devices loaded for monitoring?
  • How often is it updated?
  • How must it be structured? (Location, SLA, Business Unit or technology based?)
  • Who sets the standards for devices to be monitoring compliant?
  • Who makes sure that the hardware and software resources are sufficient for the tool?
  • Who looks after the hardware?
  • Is there a database used for storage? Who is maintaining the DB?
  • Are the backups in place? Do you need a DR solution?
  • Who provides access to the system?
  • Who sets up the dashboards?
  • If there are integration requirements, who owns that and maintains it?
  • Who must be trained to use the tool? Who does the training?
  • Who disseminates information? If it’s ‘automated’, who sets it up?
  • Who must get what information?
  • What actions must be taken regarding specific information?
  • Who must watch screens and what do they do based on what they see?
  • Who must receive automated escalations? What must they do about it?

And if you don’t want to buy another tool, consider outsourcing it all and ask questions like these:

  • Will you (Service Provider) look after all ‘Tool’ required hardware, software, licenses, capacity, backups, administration, DR and…
  • Can I have a geographical view of all my outages?
  • Can I see all non-performing assets and stressed assets?
  • Can I evaluate capacity issues for all devices?
  • Can all my assets be tracked geographically?
  • Can I have all my assets collated in one area for data mining?
  • Can I mark all my SLAs monthly?
  • Can I see and measure user experience and application performance?
  • Can I check my IT provider compliance to standards and best practices?
  • Can I provide difference business units a view or report for their portion of the infrastructure?
  • Can I have an on-site Operations Centre or the option to reduce costs and host it off site?

Make sense? Cause now you’re moving away from looking at the tool. You’re making it someone else’s problem and ensuring that you get the required output to run your business and improve service delivery!

Ramaphosa says, “buy local” – marra why?

Ramaphosa says, “buy local” – marra why?

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

In his state-of-the-nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa challenged South Africans to buy locally-made products, in order to boost the ailing local economy and create jobs.

That’s such a simple and logical statement – but how many South Africans truly understand the positive impact of buying local?

15 million South Africans are unemployed. So, how is it that businesses can’t find the “right” people?

Skills shortage

Some candidates are highly skilled and costly to employ. Some are not educated or not educated enough. Some have the wrong qualifications and others lack experience.

Businesses look for experienced, qualified candidates that suit their budgets. It is unfortunate and all too common that some fit the right educational requirements but lack real-life experience. Ask any graduate or employing manager.

It’s a frustrating reality for both parties involved.

Like most other IT companies globally, we as Sintrex also faced a “skills shortage problem”, despite there being no shortage of applications for vacant positions. Most local IT companies look for internationally certified skills because most sell international products like Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, etc.

International products are imported, freight/import duties are paid, mark-ups are added and products are sold (hopefully with local services) to the end client. Once all invoices are paid, guess where the lion’s share of product revenue ends up? Yup, with the international manufacturer! A small percentage is held by the distributor (importer) and a fraction held by the reseller (usually between 15% and 40%).

I’m not saying that this is taboo, that’s the nature of the game and it is how most local IT shops sustain their businesses. Many specialise and ensure that they are the market experts and “go to” companies for certain products and associated skills. Companies create jobs by importing products too.

But what if we could sell a local product as a local IT company? So that the lion’s share of the revenue would remain local? Yes! What would we do with that revenue? Well, someone has to create, support, sell, service and market the products – resulting in job creation! Just like President Ramaphosa said… But wait, now we have to go back into the loop of finding the right skills?! This stuff’s not easy, hey?

Luckily for us, we faced this problem a few years back already… Because we have local products, it was imperative that we develop a solution to employing the right skills for our business. Without a conscious decision to find a solution to this problem, we would have been unable to realise the growth that we were targeting. (Besides targeting the market share in our speciality).

How we solved our skills shortage problem

The solution was actually quite simple. We looked at our unemployed youth, many of whom have high school qualifications, or even a tertiary qualification – but no experience. We developed an internship programme that employs 90% of our interns after their full term.

We teach our interns the IT foundations that we require for our business and eventually make them experts on our products and services. They gain practical experience on production systems, interact with our clients and shadow our employees for on-the-job training.

So what!?

So more than half (53%) of our staff complement are Sintrex Intern graduates. Of these, 12% are Engineers, 10% are Developers, 4% are Solutions Specialists, 2% are QA Analysts, 2% are Managers and the rest are operators. (Feb 2019 Statistics)

Truthfully: we’re proud of the jobs that we’ve created, we’re proud of that fact that we have local products and services that can compete with international equivalents, we’re proud of having supporting clients – and most of all, we’re proud of our interns and the staff that mentor them!

Buy local, South Africans! You are creating sustainable careers for our youth!

Beauty vs. the Beast!

This thought pattern is bananas!

This thought pattern is bananas!

Most of us like bananas, right? We’re privileged to have access to bananas in areas where they do not grow naturally. We even have the luxury of choosing how many we want to buy and we can hand-pick them from hundreds on display!

But why do you buy bananas? Do you just buy for the sake of having a fruit snack? Are you making a fruit salad or perhaps banana bread? Do you buy them because they’re on sale and look REALLY good? And because they’re on sale, “let’s buy more and decide what to do with them after the purchase!” (Sounds like my wife…)

Have you noticed that if you purposely buy bananas for a specific reason, then you become very selective in your purchasing decision? Generally we would shop for ripe and maybe organic bananas to make really nice banana bread. Anything other than ripe really will not do.

Making the ideal banana bread requires a good recipe, some additional ingredients and some know-how. We could opt to purchase a pre-made banana bread, but we know that some people REALLY know how to make an excellent banana bread, so much so that you might ask them to make it for you!

So what?

So, what if I told you that the banana is your product and the banana bread is your required output? This would mean the additional ingredients, recipe and baker make up the services provided to get to the required output.

I use this metaphor to illustrate to many organisations that when they start looking at service companies to provide services, they should find someone that can provide them with the required output!

Most organisations – especially in IT – will use tech experts to review service companies and (as I’ve heard before) ask to “lift their skirts” and reveal components that make up the service offering…. i.e. “lift your skirts and show us your bananas, baker!” Mmmm, this metaphor just took a turn down the wrong path…

Let’s refocus! Don’t fall into the trap of evaluating products (bananas) when you know what you want as a service! Contract for the required output and let the service provider control the rest!

 

Application Monitoring – still haven’t found what you’re looking for?

In the IT Monitoring space, it has become a requirement to have eyes on everything in your infrastructure and everyone has become used to the single pane of glass, API integration with drill-through capability and full stack service monitoring.

As a result, many specialist companies are punting complete visibility of your entire infrastructure and positioning their tools as the panacea to keeping an eye on it all, the entire time.

Looking at the features and capabilities of the more prevalent vendors out there, it appears to be realistic enough, but can one specialist tool really manage all of this in one go?

Is it possible? Yes!

Does is ever work?  Hardly…!

Here’s why…

Supposing you have the Rolls Royce of application monitoring tools, as soon as you start investigating last hop network latency on a per transaction basis to troubleshoot your customer portal’s performance issues – or something just as intricate, but relevant to your IT service – in most cases you will find a mundanely basic network error is actually affecting normal service delivery.

Most of the marquee application monitoring tools that you come across can see any level of detail into the most critical IT services.

Embarrassingly, but most often upon implementation, these tools end up pointing out bad housekeeping, like misconfigured DHCP or how network flows are being directed to discontinued IP addresses.

Despite the grand visions that we have for our IT environments, the ground level is not as stable as we expect or want it to be and will always be something that requires our attention.

One way of looking at it is the TCP/IP model of networking communications. Application monitoring tools are used to look at, troubleshoot and alert on the upper layer, as the name suggests, where transaction details can be decrypted for DPI – Deep Packet Inspection.

Following this the Transport, Internet and Physical Layers are the supporting communication layers and essentially constitute physical and virtualized network equipment, VLANs, Quality of Service Bands and their configurations – everything that the business applications need to serve the end users with information.

If this TCP/IP model is viewed as a tower of building blocks, which it does represent in many ways, it stands to reason that the foundational layers need to be in place and under control before the upper layers can be used to any effect.

These are areas and functions that need to be maintained.

Don’t take my word for it though, refer to any operational lifecycle or governance framework. Somewhere between the planning, design and operation of any service in IT, maintenance is required.
ITIL labels it as “Transition”, COBIT says “Review Effectiveness” and the Sintrex in-house methodology chose to call it “Verify”, but it still speaks to evaluating existing structures for effectiveness and performing maintenance where necessary.

But “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”, so unless something goes wrong and gets rectified, how would one maintain the lower layers of this tower?

There should be emphasis on the lowest level of the model continuously, but your focus can only move to the upper layers, provided that the current layers in focus mature into established processes of maintenance and upkeep.

This should ring true for anyone involved in networks, as the first port of call when assigning blame is invariably, the network. More trust in the network and higher visibility into the lower layers translates into less time you need to spend hunting basic errors.

And when an end user claims the ERP system is not working, IT support should first and foremost confirm that the physical network servicing the system is up and running.

If you can say with confidence that the basics are in place and the network is doing what it should, it enables you to build up from this foundation to view all the intricacies that depend on the network.

This is the level of confidence you should have in your network, before you should be able to put your trust in Application monitoring.

Mapping the future with information

As time moved on and more voyages were taken, the navigators steadily improved these maps, as new contributions and corrections were made. From the earliest maps, where the edge of the world was still a real concern, the quality of the information gradually improved until the maps became reliable enough for modern day use.  *Until satellites took all of the guess work out of it, that is!

Where the famous explorers of the ocean had maps, we have data.

So, if one were to consider oneself an explorer of information, data would be your map and very likely your company’s data. Looking from the right angle, you will find some striking similarities between the challenges that the naval explorers faced and what we have to accomplish with information that is sometimes not so reliable.

This just means we all have our own version of a map, just in the form of rows, columns and blobs.

Decisions need to be made based on data. Every industry has their own sort of data, from retail and food stores that have customer data, to Web Developers that have statistics gathered on their sites.

So, if you manage a store well or build cool websites, is it because you have good data knowledge?

It is possible to build a server for machine learning without too much of a learning curve.  Better yet, if you have a little more budget, you can rent a server that is ready to use for machine learning or AI space from several cloud-based providers. Almost sounds like we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to deriving value from machine learning and discovering trends in our data.
There is a snag though… You need to understand data science or have an expert in your company’s ranks to figure out what is actually going on.

Alternatively, you could make use of Business Intelligence to sort out the trending and analyses for you.
It is not as new and mysterious as AI and machine learning, but it does still come with a few of its own challenges.
Most BI tools need some level of skill and work very well if you have clean, quality data. But most data is just not clean. It’s an unfortunate truth we must live with and you can’t afford wasting time cleaning data when the month end report needs to be presented first thing tomorrow morning.

Beside these strategic concerns, you are still faced with the question of what you actually want to achieve using your data. Analyzing past trends is not going to do much for the company’s future.  It is easy to miss the point when you have your head stuck in reports analysing it to death.

Like the aforementioned explorers, you need to use the old map to guide you until you have reached its limit and then go beyond this… Making discoveries that could make all the difference to your company, creating new revenue streams or initiating cost savings! Data should be used to discover great new horizons based on what you have learned.

To utilize your data in this way, proper analysis and thus a great navigator is needed. This is where Sintrex comes in – we “navigate”, enabling you to make the right decisions based on your data!

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