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How to plan and design a Windows IT infrastructure

Windows managers must be able to understand what the business needs, prepare the IT infrastructure plan accordingly and be able to articulate this plan to upper management when planning their IT budgets.

Russell Olsen
Russell Olsen

For most IT shops, it's time to start budgeting for next year. And year after year, it seems like all IT managers face a similar problem -- upper management doesn't care about your IT budget until it's too late. This often leads to a struggle to get what is needed before it's past due and with an IT budget that is never as much as you asked for.

But there are ways that Windows managers can ease this pain. They can start by following these simple steps:

  • Understand
  • Plan
  • Design
  • Frame
  • Repeat
  • Communicate

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Understand – This is the "why" of infrastructure planning. If I had to summarize upper management's view of an IT budget, it would be that no executive likes to hear that a million dollars needs to be spent on new servers. Infrastructure expenditures often give upper management the same feeling they get when they drive a new car off the lot and recognize the depreciation that has just occurred. The IT manager's ability to keep IT infrastructure costs down and support other costs with business objectives will be music to upper management's ears.

Some IT pros love to buy stuff for the sake of having stuff. Remember that USB drive that automatically locks when you walk away from your computer? And do you also remember that you stopped using it after a week because you really didn't need it? It takes only a few of those kinds of purchases to kill any future budget requests. If upper management catches you buying new equipment for the sake of having new equipment, you can kiss your budget credibility goodbye. You must understand what the business needs are and be able to articulate them.

Plan -- This is the "what" part of the process. The only way to really be successful is to have a plan. I challenge you to find a true success that wasn't a result of a plan. Your plan doesn't have to be perfect or the best one, but you need to have one. Create a goal and have an idea of what it will take to get there. For example, if you are administering a small Windows environment with little to no redundancy, your IT infrastructure plan might map out how the purchase of three new servers will support all the redundancy that the business needs.

There are a lot of tools available from vendors like Dell, HP, IBM and Microsoft that can help during this phase. There is also a free -- yes, free -- capacity planning tool from Microsoft that IT managers can use. These tools can help when it comes time to determine whether your Windows shop needs a single 64-bit processor with 4 GB RAM and 150 GB disk or a quad-core x64 chipset with 16 GB RAM and a storage array.

Design -- Once you have a plan, it's time to start the design. This is the "how." Start figuring out how you will use various technologies to accomplish your goal by looking at white papers, talking to vendors and conducting general research. As you develop the design, don't forget about licensing. Seriously consider virtualization. It is estimated that most servers operate at only 10% capacity. Virtualization can push that up to 80% -- leaving a safety cushion -- but that will take even more planning.

Microsoft's server licensing for virtual machines recently changed. Windows Server 2003 R2 gives you four free licenses for virtual machines on a single host -- buy one, get four free. Datacenter 2003 gives you unlimited virtual machine licenses. There are some caveats, so check out Microsoft's websites for licensing and virtualization.

Frame --The concept of framing is simple, with the "why" and "what" clearly defined. Execute the "how" but in stages. Take baby steps. It's unlikely that you'll get access to your entire budget at once, but it is plausible that you'll be able to make smaller purchases each month. This allows IT managers to piece in the framework month by month and constantly execute on the plan. Remember -- an IT infrastructure plan that includes virtualization can often be implemented over several different hardware phases.

Repeat -- The good thing about a baby step approach is that you are more likely to quickly identify issues within the different phases. And when issues are identified, IT managers can jump to the appropriate step and adjust as needed. For example, if there is a problem with how virtualization is implemented in your environment, there's no need to change the "what," just the "how."

Communicate -- During my help desk technician days, I met a CIO who had a rather surprising request – he wanted the type of workstation that was typically given to our marketing department. As I delivered his computer, I asked him -- as only a college kid could -- "I don't understand why a CIO would need the full Adobe product suite." His reply is one that I will never forget; "The better picture I can draw, the more likely the CEO will agree."

As most IT managers are entrenched in the bowels of the company, we know where the next failure is likely to occur, and we usually know how to fix it. But we often fail to draw a picture for the CEO. We typically explain how, but we forget to explain why.

IT managers who learn how to plan for IT infrastructure needs and know how to communicate this plan effectively have a good chance of getting the help and the budget from upper management.

Russell Olsen is currently the CIO of a Healthcare Technology company and previously worked for a Big Four accounting firm performing technology risk assessments and Sarbanes-Oxley audits. Russell is a CISA, GSNA and MCP.

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