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How to align network usage information to business processes

Network usage information aligned to business process standards is an ITIL best practice that can help network professionals thrive during a recession. This article is the second in a series that explores ways in which network professionals can employ ITIL best practices to help their businesses make more informed decisions, especially when pressured by tough, fast-changing financial times.

Aligning network usage information to business process standards is an ITIL best practice that can help network professionals thrive during a recession. This article is the second in a series that explores ways in which network professionals can employ ITIL best practices to help their businesses make more informed decisions, especially when pressured by tough, fast-changing financial times.

Trying times bring opportunities as well as hardships. Today's financial crisis is no different. Slowing economies drive revenues lower, resulting in layoffs, austerity programs and purchasing delays. As an IT professional, you must demonstrate your value to the business if you want to survive this downturn. Here's how to do it in terms your business executives can understand.

Align reporting to business processes

After developing a comprehensive view of how the business uses IT services, especially those that affect network usage, we need to collect usage information and aggregate it by business process or function. Now I know you are saying, "Yeah, right -- that's a lot of work!" But doing this work is no different from what your business people do in inventory management and asset allocation. The goal here is to look like any other important part of the business and show how you provide more value.

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Breaking usage out by business process is not easy. If it were, we wouldn't have this discussion and everyone would be doing it. Infrastructure components and their interactions with business applications and other IT resources are complex. Because the work is complicated, you should employ tried and true project management best practices. That means starting simple, perhaps addressing just a few mission-critical business processes, and then as your processes mature, refining your approach to better meet business needs. It takes much thought and hard work to be successful, but the value your business leaders derive from this information is priceless and well worth the effort. Remember, your information helps them make better informed, thus less risky, business decisions -- maybe making the difference between business survival and failure.

The initial step is to gather data. Your goal is not only to gather usage data but also to inventory all network-related infrastructure components. The individual component data is necessary in Part 3 to determine cost allocations. The usage data will determine the basis for allocating network infrastructure costs across the business processes.

First, inventory the network-related infrastructure components, mapping all previously discovered business processes across the inventory. For example, if a business process is the only business unit located in a particular location, all those components used by it, such as CSU/DSU, bandwidth and router ports, would be mapped so that usage data can be collected and, in Step 3, costs associated with its use.

Once you have completed the inventory and mapped business processes to it, you need to gather usage data. If you have a chargeback system, getting the raw data should be fairly easy. Just determine representative time frames of normal business use, extract the raw data, and aggregate it by business process.

More work is involved if you don't have a chargeback system. You need to instrument the different network components to capture data from specific locations. Alternatively, you can employ portable measurement equipment and/or software to sample usage at different points in the network at different times during the day. If you have server-based network appliances, you also need to gather server usage information, since that will be part of the cost base. Sampling should determine customary usage, that which is representative of a normal business workday. Additional sampling may be desired to determine peaks and troughs in usage, helping you understand the bounds of services consumed. There will be some infrastructure resource use that you will not be able to attribute to an individual business process. These resources should be aggregated into an "Overhead" category, which later will be equitably allocated across the business units in Step 3. Overhead would cover items including, but not limited to, test beds, background traffic and network monitors.

Once the sampling or data-gathering process is tested and refined, it will be necessary to store it in a file or database to facilitate the report development process. This can be accomplished through the use of third-party vendor tools designed for this task, or you can take a homegrown approach and use existing capabilities such as SAS, Microsoft Access, MySQL, or Crystal Reports.

Collection periods should be in concert with business reporting periods. This permits you to correlate usage to business events. Doing so shows the business impacts on the network as transaction levels vary. This is important because it builds credibility when you predict future impacts based upon expected changes in business volumes.

With the usage data collected and stored, it's now time to design, generate and distribute reports. Remember, business units will receive these reports, so avoid using IT metrics or acronyms. Use percentages of use wherever possible, and correlate them to business metrics. Doing so helps your business leaders understand the scope of impact from transaction volume downturns on your areas of responsibility.

Aim for one or two reports that will best show the impacts on network usage as business volumes vary. Reporting must be flexible in order to handle usage changes, whether usage goes up or down. You would expect business transactions to decline during trying times, but in some cases they may actually rise. For example, the collections unit of a credit card issuer will usually generate higher transaction volumes in bad times.

Web-based reporting or email distribution using PDF files are most desirable because business leaders can easily access them. Once distributed, touch base with the business units to determine whether changes are needed to make the reports more valuable to them. Doing this not only makes your reports more valuable, it helps you solidify your relationship with the business. Remember that one of our goals is to be a face, not an email address.

Now that you have put reporting in place, there are other steps you can take to be more proactive. Work with your business units to understand business projections. Using your previously collected data as a baseline, model or trend the projections to predict future network behavior. This will help the business better understand the options as they relate to the network infrastructure. Since the network ties all the IT pieces together, you can take an even more proactive role by coordinating the correlation of other IT areas' usage measurements to your own, providing the business with a more comprehensive view of IT infrastructure impacts.

At this point, your business units should have an excellent understanding of how network usage patterns change in relation to changes in business volumes. Unfortunately, usage alone doesn't provide the business with all the information needed to make informed decisions. In Step 3, we will discuss ways to apply cost information to usage, providing business leaders with critical additional information that may make the difference in your company's battle for survival.

Ron Potter
About the author: Ron Potter has been involved in IT for more than 30 years, working in a number of different roles and industries. Before retiring, he was closely involved with a multi-year IT improvement project at a large insurance company that embraced the ITIL framework and its best practices. He established a capacity-modeling process, working closely with business, applications and infrastructure teams. He is currently working part-time spoiling grandchildren and, when not tackling that tough assignment, he is Best Practices Manager at TeamQuest Corporation.

This was last published in April 2009

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