The Enterprise Quilt

The enterprise computing environment on campus is
a complex fabric of diverse elements, stitched in layers.

When we think about enterprise computing, we tend to think only about replacements for legacy administrative systems. But the enterprise is much more than that; it is all of the computing resources together that we put in place to support our university.

On our campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we talk about layers of computing and networking technology as underwear, middleware, and outerwear (the UMO model). The UMO is a simple model. It d'es not begin to account for the multiple sublayers that make up this one layer or the components of those sublayers.

For example, when we start to parse our network—as we have recently done at Madison—we find ourselves soon facing streets and conduits and fibre (multi-mode or single-mode), buildings with cable (or maybe more fibre) between the floors and in the walls, telecommunications closets requiring specific electrical and HVAC capacity, access control for those closets, and equipment racks in those closets. Then there are the switches and routers in the closets connected by cable or fibre to wall jacks and then to desktop computers that require the correct network capability. And that's a simple picture.

We have networks in our computer rooms that are even more complex, where we worry about different layers in the network protocol. As we were building our new network I found myself remembering that TCP/IP is, in itself, a seven-layer protocol—I remembered this because we were struggling with a Layer 4 switch. And that’s just the network.

The other large pieces of underwear are the central and distributed computers. Others are the servers and the operating systems that reside on them, a layer that has become very involved. There was a time when we had a mainframe that ran most of our legacy applications and another mainframe or maybe a VAX cluster that ran our academic applications. On mid-sized and large campuses these often resided in two separate computing centers—the administrative computing center and the academic computing center—and never the twain shall meet.

But meet they have. Now if there is a mainframe, it is one of many servers sitting in the computing center supporting an expanded portfolio of applications. At Madison we currently have over 400 centrally supported servers and many different operating systems. While not all of these 400 are technically “enterprise servers”—some of them provide more limited departmental support—all of them support either the entire enterprise or essential components of it. The enterprise computing environment is an extraordinarily detailed and diverse fabric—an enterprise quilt. As we develop more applications in the outer layers, we ask more from the underlying layers and more from our staffs that are keeping this environment running 24x7.

I favor the principle of keeping things short and simple (KISS), as we work on providing applications and services to support our university enterprise. Regardless, the technology environment continues to evolve and expand.

We face a very real challenge in managing this environment and in having our colleagues in the academe understand both how complex and how fragile the enterprise technology environment is.

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