As recent outages at Amazon Web Services and Sony PlayStation Network jar the common perception of IT business as usual, IT failures and performance snafus are nothing new, just perhaps much more prominent.
Someone, somewhere got the first call on those outages — the front line IT technical support staff. And the expanding role of cloud and the online services ecosystems that more of us depend on only point up why such IT technical support is more important than ever.
It just so happens that the importance of good and fast support is forcing technical support industry changes, with an emphasis on integration and empowerment for improving how help desks respond and perform in a spiraling crisis.
To learn more about how support is adapting to the high-impact, high-exposure cloud era, BriefingsDirect recently interviewed two lauded IT master technologists from HP. Part of the new support philosophy comes from providing a more centralized, efficient and powerful means of getting all the systems involved working, and all the knowledge necessary together quickly to get applications back in action and keep them there.
These two support stars, Chris Tinker and Greg Tinker, both HP master technologists who happen to be identical twins, were chosen via a recent sweepstakes hosted by HP to identify favorite customer support personnel. Learn here why they gained such recognition and uncover their recommendations for how IT support should be done better in a rapidly changing era of increasingly hybrid and cloud-modeled computing. The two were interviewed by BriefingsDirect’s Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Listen to the podcast (38:14 minutes).
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: You deal with people when they are, in some cases, their darkest hour. They’re under pressure. There’s something that’s gone wrong. They’re calling you. So, you’re not just there in a technical sense, which of course is important, but there must be a human dynamic to this as well. How does that work?
Chris Tinker: We become their confidant. We foster a relationship there between the two parties. For us, it’s very exhilarating. It’s the ultimate test. You want to build both the technical and business, but also the interpersonal relationship, because you have to weigh in on so many levels, not just technical. That’s a critical component, but not the only component.
Greg Tinker: And today the customer expects the technical master technologist, like my brother and I, not just to know the one thing they’re asking about, because that question is going to quickly turn. For example, I am having an Oracle performance issue, the customer thinks it may be disk-related, but when you dig into it, you find out that it’s actually an ODBC call, a networking issue. So, you have to be quite proficient at a multitude of technologies and have a lot of depth and breadth.
Gardner: So what does it take to be a good IT support person nowadays?
Chris Tinker: It’s simply not enough to be a technical guru — not in today’s industry. You have to have a good understanding of technology, yes, but you also have to understand the tools and realize that technology is simply a tool for business outcomes. If you’re listening to the business, understanding what their concerns and their challenges are, then you can apply that understanding to their technical situation to essentially work for a solution.
Greg Tinker: Chris and I study, almost on a daily basis, to stay ahead of the technology curve. Chris and I both do a lot in SCSI I/O control logic, with respect to the kernel structure of HP-UX as well as Linux, which is our playground, if you will.
And, it takes what I would call firm foundation to be able to provide that strong wealth of knowledge to be the customer’s confidant. You can’t be an expert at one point anymore. You can’t be a network expert only. You have to understand the entire gamut of the business, so that you can understand the customer’s technical problem.
Gardner: Let me congratulate you your award. This was I think a worldwide pool, or at least a very large group of people that you were chosen from. Did this come as a surprise?
Greg Tinker: It was an honor, I can say that, and we are very grateful for that. Our customer installed base, as well as our peers and the management team, put our names into this situation. It was a great honor. … For each vote that was cast, HP donated (US)$10 to the humanitarian organization Care, to max out at a $100,000. They met that goal in just a few days. It was quite astonishing.
Chris Tinker: And it was a surprise. … Very rewarding.
Gardner: Okay, you’ve been at this for 12 and 13 years. What’s changed over that period of time?
Chris Tinker: Catchphrases change. Today it’s cloud computing, but cloud computing has been around for a long time. We just didn’t refer to it as cloud computing. Shared infrastructure of course is what we called it.
Virtualization today is becoming a big ticket item, where in years past, big iron was the thing that was a catchphrase. Big iron was very large computers. We still have big iron in storage, that’s true. We still have that big footprint, big powerhouse, that consumes a lot of power, but that’s a necessity of the storage platform.
The big thing for today is converged infrastructure. These are terms you wouldn’t have heard years ago, where we are trying to converge multiple type of protocols, physical media under one medium, networking, Fibre Channel, which of course is your storage network, TCP/IP network, going across the same physical piece of media. These are things that are changing, and of course with that comes extreme amount of complexity, especially when it comes into the actual engine that drives this.
Greg Tinker: As Chris stated, the key phrase of yesteryear was big iron. I want a big behemoth machine that can outdo mainframe. If you look back to 1999 and 2000, what you were looking for in the open system world was something to compete with Big Blue.
Today it’s virtualization and blades. Everybody used to say — probably about mid-2005 — “I want a pizza box. I want a new blade.” We no longer call those blades. Those are called pizza boxes now. Today, the concept is all about blades. If you can’t make the thing 3 inches tall and 1 inch wide, there is something wrong.
Gardner: You’ve been describing how things have changed technically. How have things changed in terms of the customer requirements and/or the customer culture?
Chris Tinker: The expectation is more for less. They want more computing power. They want more IT for less cost, which I think that’s been true since day one, but today, of course, that “more for less” just means more computing power. The footprint of the servers has changed.
And two, the support model has changed. Keep in mind, we’re in support, and we’re seeing a trend with these concepts where customers are having all these physical servers and the support contracts on all these servers are being consolidated down to one physical server with virtual instances.
The support model of yesteryear doesn’t always fit the support model that they should have today.
Greg Tinker: What Chris is talking about there is consolidation efforts. Customers used to have 500 servers. Today — I want to exaggerate my point here — we have it on a virtualization of one or two physical machines that are behemoth and it’s virtualized 500 guests.
Though that model works right for consolidating the cost effort of the infrastructure, so your capital cost is less, the problem now becomes the support model. Customers tend to reduce the support as well, because it’s less infrastructure. But keep in mind, most customers kind of forget a lot of times that they’ve put all their eggs into the one basket, and that basket needs a lot of protection.
So now you have your entire enterprise running on one or two pieces of physical hardware that is a grossly complex with not only the virtual servers, but the virtual Ethernet modules, the Fibre Channel model concepts are all now basically one concept to run every protocol type, whether you are running infiniband, Gigabit Ethernet, Fibre Channel, etc., the complexity requires a great deal of support.
When a customer calls up and says, “We’ve made a change in our environment and my server has crashed, the physical server went down, or has lost access to its storage or network,” you’re not just affecting that one physical server, but you’re affecting hundreds. So, the support model today is quick.
Gardner: It sounds to me that there is a higher risk profile. Is that a fair characterization?
Greg Tinker: That would be a fair characterization. There is a higher risk on the hardware end in the sense that you still have hardware redundancy, of course, but you’re fully dependent upon cluster technology and complexity.
Chris Tinker: A good solution design for business risk assessments are still a critical component to your solution design.