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Construct a winning data center project plan

Before embarking on new data center projects, such as an upgrade or move to the cloud, clearly define all goals and expectations -- and not just for IT.

As organizations adopt technologies such as cloud computing, mobility and internet of things, they take on significant data center projects. These projects could include a move to the cloud, a major update to a critical business application, a server brand change or new infrastructure management tools.

While these changes may transform the business, they also present tremendous risk. Seventeen percent of IT projects budgeted at $15 million or higher threatened a company's very existence because they go so poorly, according to a 2012 survey from consulting firm McKinsey & Company. It is not an overstatement to say that a firm's future revolves around the success or the failure of its next major data center upgrade. Fortunately, there are a few steps managers can take to ensure the success of a data center project plan.

Setting an early tone

IT may be tempted to shortchange the planning and jump right into the process. Such a move would be a mistake.

The first and most difficult step is to set clear expectations. Enterprises need to transform ideas about new business opportunities or potential internal improvements into writing, by starting with a project definition and management document. These documents break down projects into different categories -- such as small, medium and large, based on the project's scale -- and outline system specifications and deliverables. They are often based on commercial products, such as Atlassian's JIRA, Celoxis or Microsoft Project. The clearer the document, the more likely a company is to succeed.

IT may be tempted to shortchange the planning and jump right into the process. Such a move would be a mistake. A change that costs $1 to make in the development cycle turns into a $10,000 alteration in a production system, according to consulting firm Scott Ambler + Associates. Everyone involved in a new data center project plan needs to be on the same page from the start.

The reach of any major overhaul extends well beyond the IT department. If a new data center is being built, IT must interact with the facilities management unit. If the payroll application is undergoing a major rewrite, then IT needs to work with the finance group.

The days of IT tightly controlling technology purchases are gone. With cloud and other consumer technologies, business unit managers can easily work around the data center staff. Data center managers need to be democrats rather than autocrats, working with business managers to enhance the data center infrastructure.

Sweat the details of your data center project plan

Data center managers need to know how to respond when major changes occur, such as the addition of a new server or a one-month extension to the delivery schedule. Projects often fail because the team gets bogged down in minor deliverables that were not part of the original business requirements -- also known as scope creep.

For example, a business unit asks for a change in the user interface. It needs another row in the database, and the number of users rises from 25 to 28. The series of small alterations accumulates and has a significant impact on a project. This problem can become more pronounced when organizations rely on DevOps -- which focuses on making fast, small changes -- rather than saving them for major releases. To avoid scope creep, data center managers need to track minor changes and put metrics in place to gauge their cumulative effect.

Other warning signs may indicate that the data center project plan is headed for trouble, such as a small variance in schedule or an increasing budget. Sometimes, the data center staff may think it can soon close the gap but new, unexpected issues arise later and the gap widens. Rather than plan for a best-case scenario, data center staff needs to make adjustments as soon as possible. The longer IT avoids addressing a problem, the bigger it becomes and the more challenging it is to mitigate the eventual damage.

IT managers must ensure that failed projects or missteps do not lead everyone to the unemployment line. As data center systems become more important to the core business, the data center manager's reach needs to extend throughout the organization.

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