Explaining Smarter Infrastructure to your kids

If you had to explain to kids why infrastructure matters, what would you say to help them understand? Infrastructure is so important to our lives, so perhaps we should pay a little more attention to it.

[originally posted on the IBM Smarter Computing Blog site on April 24, 2014]

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Some of my daughter’s high school friends occasionally come over to our house in the afternoons to do homework or get ready for athletic practice or events. Often, they see me working on my laptop or hear me on a conference call in my home office and invariably the question comes up, “What does your dad do?”

QuestionMarks

As an IT infrastructure architect, I struggled with an explanation for the first few times and then finally came up with a way to explain my job function through a Socratic approach. So now when I get asked what I do, I reply with a series of questions:

  • “Do you know how and where the electricity comes from when you turn on a light?”

They say “No.”

  • “Do you know how the fresh water gets to your faucet when you turn one on?”

    “No.”

  • “Do you know where the sewage goes when you flush the toilet?

    “No.”

  • “Do you know how a text or picture gets from your phone to your friends’ phones?”

    “No.”

Then I say, “I do all those things that you don’t see that make your phones actually work!”

They reflect a bit, usually smile and say, “That’s pretty cool!’

And I then say, “Yes … yes it is.”

Sometimes we have a short discussion about the various sources and methods of generating and distributing electricity, and I use the opportunity to discuss alternative, cleaner energy and the need for a smarter grid. Or we talk about how clean water gets to the faucet and the issues surrounding fresh water around the world. Or we talk about how sewage is removed and treated (some jurisdictions are turning it into drinking water that is “certified organic”). And sometimes we talk about big servers, storage, networks and cloud computing and how those digital infrastructure elements enable smartphones, bank ATMs and airline reservations.

Infrastructure matters

The point here is that infrastructure matters, but most people do not know, understand or care about infrastructure (that is, until it breaks or goes away). Yet it is vitally important in our physical and digital lives in the Anthropocene epoch. If for nothing else, infrastructure matters because we humans are altering the climate of our only planetary home in ways we do not yet fully understand by our increasing use of infrastructure in its many and varied forms.

So if infrastructure is so important to our lives, perhaps we should pay a little more attention to it.

We can define infrastructure as all the elements of a designed, engineered and built environment (a complex system of systems) that are generally overlooked or not readily apparent to the casual observer or consumer of the products and services said infrastructure provides.

Paying attention to the infrastructure can reduce risks as well as save and earn money—all good things for both people and organizations, especially if we can identify the unintended consequences of our actions, preferably well in advance, so that we might choose better alternatives.

Maximizing value in an infrastructure

To best assist clients from the IT infrastructure perspective, the system architects in IBM deal with both the holistic aspects of a given system as well as the individual physical components that make up the system.City

As is generally true in most systems, optimizing individual components usually degrades the overall system, whether we are talking about cloud computing, grid computing, smarter cities or natural systems. So we examine the role each component has to play to contribute to and balance the overall system and therefore provide maximum value for the investment in the whole system.

In a business environment, to maximize value means looking at the components from two major dimensions: one of quality and one of time.

In the IT world, looking at the components of a system in qualitative terms is generally described as dealing with the nonfunctional requirements (NFRs). NFRs can best be thought of as those attributes of a system or component thereof that answer the how? or how well? question, especially as contrasted with the what? question (which is dealt with by identifying and addressing the functional requirements).

The IBM system architect community has spent almost a decade perfecting a client-focused consultative methodology to help clients address the NFRs of a system and its components. The “fit-for-purpose” methodology helps clients select the best hardware (servers, storage subsystems, network architecture) to meet the business requirements of the system (driven by the NFRs) to provide maximum value.

But value is not static, nor are businesses, government organizations or people. So we have to add the element of time to the effort. Introducing the time element helps us look at the overall costs and benefits of the solution throughout its lifecycle (more on this in a future blog post, perhaps).

Moving toward future systems

To return to the physical analogy concept, I like to think of the information systems in Winchester Mystery Houseorganizations today to be somewhat like the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Just like poor, nutty Mrs. Winchester, we have organically evolved our IT systems over the years without much architecture such that now we have a maintenance and integration nightmare on our hands. Note that the these core systems that “run the business” still make up a large part of an organization’s IT capital and operating expenses. They also tend to trap data within the disparate systems, hampering an organizations’ ability to make wiser decisions through the use of analytics or “big data.”

The value of infrastructure

How we design and operate our physical and digital infrastructures for the 21st century matters very much to people. After all, people are the core of businesses, and people create governments.  If you are contemplating making your infrastructure smarter, from the IT or the city standpoint, you just may benefit from a conversation (or more) with your local IBM system architect.

Have you ever thought about why infrastructure matters? How would you teach your kids about smarter infrastructure?

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