Politically savvy IT managers key to grid project success

Executive Summit panelists suggest early intervention may head off user resistance

PHILADELPHIA -- Information technology managers embarking on grid computing projects could get some tips from the candidates in this election season. That's because political savvy is required to build support for grid projects, which tend to cover wide areas of an enterprise.

"It's like running for office," said Ben Flock, vice president of virtualization and applications frameworks at Cigna Corp., a Philadelphia-based health insurance benefits company. "You're educating a pretty broad community."

Flock said IT managers should also heed the advice in Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." There may be people who feel that a grid project will adversely affect them, he said. "If you don't bring them to the table early, they can act like a sniper later in the day," Flock said.

Control Issues

Resistance to grid projects can stem from a loss of "ownership," say grid experts and early adopters. By virtualizing, pooling and centralizing computing resources in an enterprise, a grid implementation can lead to a business unit losing control over its IT resources, and that could fuel opposition to the project.

Ben Flock, vice president of virtualization and applications frameworks at Cigna Corp.
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Ben Flock, vice president of virtualization and applications frameworks at Cigna Corp.

Image Credit: Tracey Kroll

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Flock was a panelist at a Computerworld IT Executive Summit held here last week, where IT managers shared experiences about their grid projects. In Flock's case, Cigna is undertaking a server virtualization implementation across some 3,000 servers, and that effort will ultimately lead to grid computing.

Implementing grid projects takes strong senior management support, clear and rapid deliverables, and partnerships to keep internal resistance at bay—steps that apply generally to all kinds of IT projects, Flock said.

Grids are different in some key respects, though. The goal is to treat all IT resources dynamically and allow enterprises to shift computing power and data to wherever they're needed. Grids are enabled by a variety of technologies, such as virtualization, blades and storage-area networks.

However, the technologies that support grid approaches aren't mature yet, and early adopters face challenges. Among them is the prospect of being joined at the hip with a vendor, because the lack of mature standards means users will likely have to use some proprietary technologies.

"I wouldn't be presuming that there are global standards that are tying vendor products in the grid space," said Jim Gray, engineering manager at Iron Mountain Inc., a Boston-based data-protection firm. Gray said he will ask vendors about their standards plans, but at this early stage, he isn't expecting them to adhere to development standards.

There are several ongoing grid standards efforts, including a vendor group called the Enterprise Grid Alliance. That organization has the backing of big players such as Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., but IBM and Microsoft Corp. are missing.

Competitive Strategies

Competition among vendors may also keep them from readily adopting grid standards, panelists agreed.

As soon as a vendor is hired, the grid project team members should start getting in-house training on its system, said Gregory Rhoney, program director at San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corp., which is helping the U.S. Special Operations Command develop a grid system. "Make [training] a condition of your contract," he said.

Rhoney said customers should have people who know the vendor's system "inside and out . . . so if something happens in the future, you can protect yourself."

The team managing a grid project should be diverse but also have some deep specializations, panelists said. Cigna uses a "virtual team model" in which employees are pulled from a variety of areas, depending on the project. A grid project may include people from engineering, project management, operations and architecture disciplines. "The trick is to balance all those things," Flock said.

AT A GLANCE

Grid computing projects must have the following:

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Upper management support

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Involvement of affected parties, including business unit managers

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A multidisciplinary implementation team

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Vendor knowledge transfer

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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