I’m lucky that I work in IT but come from a software engineering background, this gives me a bit of a different perspective on the world of IT both in understanding much of what is happening behind the scenes with release cycles and features and also in applying knowledge gained from that industry to this one.
In the software engineering community in recent years the concept of “You Aren’t Gonna Need It” or YAGNI has become a popular one. YAGNI arose from the Extreme Programming (XP) group of Agile developers and is stated as this rule: “Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them.”
I like to rephrase YAGNI in development to “Don’t invest in something until you know that you need it.” But the concept is the same – if you spend time and money building pieces that you aren’t sure that you will ever need you take on risks such as not getting value as early as possible (by focusing on the things that don’t matter yet while neglecting the things that do) and investing in technology that will never be used (because requirements change, project gets canceled, etc.)
This concept ports over to IT extremely well. Design and purchasing are both heavily influences, or should be, by YAGNI. Storage is a great example. Don’t invest in storage today that you think that you will use tomorrow. We can list a lot of reasons for why early storage investment is bad: the business has little to no ability to accurately predict its own growth, IT is poor at predicting storage growth based on business growth, the time-value of money and buying storage today is more costly than buying the same storage tomorrow. Anytime that we buy based on predictions we take on risk. Predictions rarely come true.
If we over buy storage today we are paying a premium for that storage because storage costs drop dramatically over time. If we buy with 100% headroom and it takes three years or more before we use that headroom we are paying too much for the storage and getting older technology when buying later would give us better insight into what we actually need at that time (not just capacity but speed, reliability, features, etc.), lower cost and more options.
Overbuying is one risk, underbuying is another. Underbuying is, obviously, less of a risk but still a concern. If you buy today for needs three years out and at two years suddenly have a burst of need you may have overinvested in a platform or technology that cannot meet your needs.
Storage is one example but this can apply anywhere from software licenses, to CPU capacity, memory, high availability technologies even desktops. Few shops would over buy desktops by a hundred percent just to be ready for a predicted head count increase in three years, but strangely they won’t hesitate doing it elsewhere.
By buying what is required for the immediate need and holding purchasing decisions until later there is a significant opportunity for cost savings and technology improvements. In some cases it may be that the future need never arises whether because of bad predictions, changes in market or strategy or a change in technology direction either internally or externally.
Beyond purchasing, YAGNI can apply to network design. It is not uncommon for large, complex designs to be proposed and implemented based on anticipated growth often years away and, to be honest, seldom very likely in a realistic world. Building, for example, a complex high availability environment with expensive licensing, complex networking, lots of storage for an expected company growth in the future when just two servers and a nice backup plan is all that is cost justified today is dangerous. Not only must the necessary growth happen to justify the IT spend but it must happen so quickly that the time-value of the money is justified and the cost of the technology does not drop so much as to have made implementing two systems more cost effective. It is surprising how easily it can happen that putting in a smaller, stop-gap system and then implementing a larger scale system when needed can be far cheaper just because the cost of building the larger, more complex system has dropped in price so much since the first system was put in place and that is before taking into account the risk of bad predictions.
Spending early has an additional risk – it ties up corporate finances in unused architecture. That money could be invested in other parts of the business in order to grow the business. In extreme cases, overinvestment in infrastructure could be a contributor to a company failing completely – a self fulfilling situation where not using YAGNI in and of itself created the situation where YAGNI most applied. The architected solution was never needed as the company failed.
YAGNI is a risk mitigation process. Working with the needs that you know versus the needs that you anticipate.
Maybe IT shops over buy today because they are given specific budgets. This is understandable that IT ends up in a technology grab attempting to implement whatever they can when the whims of the business smile upon them. This, however, is an extremely poor business practice. Businesses need to realize that large sums of money are being wasted on IT because IT is forced to implement systems with the assumption of clairvoyancey based on arbitrary budgets from the business with no basis in the real world. IT is stuck buying what they can “sell” to the business based on often very unclear factors and the business often funds IT quite capriciously. The creates a very unhealthy business and IT relationship where IT is wasting money because it has little choice and the business sees IT as a waste because they are not allowed to operate efficiently.
To fix this situation the business and IT need to work together. IT needs to act more like a business-savvy unit and the business needs to lean on IT for guidance and not use prediction-based budgeting or become entangled in picking technological approaches without the technical understanding of the ramifications of those choices. IT needs to be able to trust the business to make logical business financial decisions and the business needs to be able to trust IT to make logical technological decisions for the business. The business drives IT, IT enables the business. It is a symbiotic relationship. If the business insists on making IT predict and operate on fixed budgets, IT will continue to be forced to overspend and overarchitect whenever possible in the hopes of being prepared for tomorrow when the budget may not be approved. If IT was trusted to request what is needed and the business was trusted to fund technology needs at the appropriate time both could operate more effectively for the common good.
Takeaway: Don’t invest early, you don’t know what technology or the business will do tomorrow.