Plan for the future -- or fail

Get off the treadmill to nowhere. If you don't have long-term, technology-agnostic infrastructure plan, you're inviting waste on a massive scale

Technology changes at such a mind-bending rate, most IT organizations can't stay off of their back foot. Planning for the future takes a permanent backseat to dealing with the present.

Constantly reacting to unforeseen challenges almost always results in waste on a massive scale. Whether it's an undersized SAN platform or a proprietary archiving architecture that fails to work with new applications, too many solutions are hastily implemented only to be replaced before their time.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Learn how data deduplication can slow the explosive growth of data with Keith Schultz's Deep Dive Report. | Looking to revise your storage strategy? See InfoWorld's iGuide to the Enterprise Data Explosion. ]

Breaking the cycle of IT solution whack-a-mole is hard, but not impossible. There's no time like the present to adopt a proactive technology stance. Here are six steps to freedom that I've found to work well in the wild.

1. Clear the slate

The very first thing to do is forget everything you've done up to this point. If you have a nice Visio diagram of your current infrastructure, hide it somewhere. You'll need it later, but not now.

I frequently see infrastructure solutions chosen solely based on what is currently in use and how easy the new and old will be to integrate. While focusing on the here and now will often result in a quick deployment, solutions that are chosen this way will have a much better chance of failing to grow well into the future. As the saying goes, don't throw good money after bad.

2. Imagine the future

Imagine your infrastructure five years from now as if you were in a position to build it from scratch starting today. How will your organization grow? How will your data grow? What regulatory requirements might you fall under in the future? What new types of applications are your users clamoring for? How will you support them?

At first, that might seem to be a fancifully pointless exercise -- after all, who can afford to replace their entire infrastructure in one shot? But bear in mind, in five years, much of the infrastructure you have deployed now will be well beyond its useful life and you will have replaced it somewhere along the way anyhow.

3. Forget the specifics

As you imagine the future, don't rely on any specific device or technology being a part of the plan. The hardware and software we have available to us today is hardly recognizable in comparison to that of five years ago. You can bet that trend will continue and even accelerate as time goes on. Building long-term plans around specific technologies that will likely bear little resemblance to their current incarnations only serves to put blinders on your creativity.

4. Define business requirements

Instead of focusing on individual technologies as a means to their own end, focus on the problems your organization will face and the requirements that will spring from those problems. As you do this, you'll find you've built a set of infrastructural requirements that can act as a yard stick to evaluate how emerging technologies can help you solve the challenges you face. Given a solid set of requirements, potential vendors will be far better able to suggest and provide solutions that meet them.

5. Implement toward the end state

As each budget cycle commences and you find yourself with near-term problems that need to be solved, evaluate each potential solution in the context of your long-term plan. If a solution doesn't have a place in your five-year plan, don't implement it. The problem at hand may be solved easily in a myriad of ways, but only a handful will address your organization's long-term goals.

In many cases, those solutions will carry a higher near-term cost or require more extensive changes to your infrastructure than the quick and dirty ones. However, weigh that increased difficulty and cost of deployment against the specter of needing to re-solve the same problem again next year or the year after. The best way to avoid reactivity in the future is to eliminate risks to your infrastructure before they have a chance to mature into real problems that need immediate resolution.

6. Refresh, reuse, recycle

As time goes on and you start to work toward the end state you've defined in your long-term plan, don't let it sit untouched. Every six months or so, revisit the future state defined in your plan and update it to reach out another six months into the future. The work of building and maintaining a solid IT infrastructure is never done; your planning can't be either.

Make sure to involve nontechnical business stakeholders in the process and get their input. They will often be considering business problems that will have a technical solution that you may be unaware of until they're requested. Likewise, involving stakeholders in your planning will cement IT's strategic role in their long-term plans for the business and put you in a position to become a trusted partner in developing them.

Breaking the cycle of constant action and reaction is extremely difficult. However, don't give up and resign yourself to a life full of fire fighting and last-minute decision making. If you build and continue to nurture a well-thought-out long-term plan, you will spend far more time building toward the future and far less time traveling in endlessly unproductive circles.

This story, "Plan for the future -- or fail," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog at InfoWorld.com.

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