Brian E Skimmons, PMP, VP, Communications Infrastructure Discipline Manager, KCI Communications Infrastructure
Many of today’s IT discussions and conversations invariably use the words: virtual (not having physical form), cyber (computers and virtuality), pipes (bandwidth), and/or cloud (not bounded by physical limits). These are just a few of the many words and phrases that represent IT concepts analogous to the physical world (can be seen and touched) that we all live in. They are also an effective way to represent the progression and inter-dependency of constructing and building the physical infrastructure that creates a boundless IT environment and enables our virtual cyber world.
Requirements are the starting point in planning and building anything regardless of intended use. Many well intentioned managers have begun projects with a concept or good idea, found what they believed were the appropriate resources and materials, and with an overabundance of enthusiasm and good intentions, began building something only to inevitably encounter countless unanticipated issues, repeatedly waste their time and effort, and finally end the project in frustration and failure. The often quoted phrase “...you can pay now, or you can pay later...” resonates with the experts who have first-hand experience in complex projects. Engineering and construction best practices should not be avoided; invest the time and effort up front with well vetted and documented requirements and you will have taken the first steps towards success.
Creating a virtual environment depends on an architecture that incorporates components that meet or exceed the parameters needed to fulfill the requirements. In other words, all IT architectures are classic examples of a ‘system of systems’ where elements can function separately and together to achieve results that meet individual and grouped goals.
Invest the time and effort up front with well vetted and documented requirements and you will have taken the first steps towards success
For example, on a house, the roofing and siding are not dependent upon each other to meet their separate requirements, but they both are needed to protect the interior against rain. Furthermore, they are both dependent on the framing structure for their support and to function properly, but the framing does not directly stop the rain. In IT, the architecture incorporates power, cooling, many types of software applications, many different hardware components, human to system interface with input/output, and interconnectivity between all the elements to produce a cyber-world. In constructing a physical structure such as a house, the starting point is static (non-moving) and then certain dynamic (moving) stress conditions are introduced (remember, requirements!) and accounted for in the design. The virtual IT world is in constant motion and requires a synchronization of operation within planned dynamic conditions, many of which are non-deterministic and random.
One of the most critical factors in constructing the virtual world from our physical infrastructure is the role that proximity and distance play in determining latency in the virtual system of systems. We have not found a way to circumvent or change the laws of physics, and our virtual world is still bound by the time it takes to move from one location to another. In IT, this is critical in delivering electronic signals, bits/bytes, files, and information from one point to another. Accuracy (limiting errors in transmission) is important, and can cause delays, but is only a contributing element to the speed at which systems incorporate pieces and elements to create a result. If a real-time image is expected to be combined with sensor data, for instance a video or picture of the ground taken from a plane sent back to an operation center along with the plane’s air speed and altitude, it is not only the time it takes to bring that information to an integration point, but achieving an accurate result is now further complicated by how the inputs are synchronized together. In construction, we can observe the effects of unsynchronized elements, such as houses being built before roads are paved, or drywall subcontractors showing up before the electrical wiring is completed.
In IT/Telecom, a video stream out of sync with an audio stream is fairly evident, but in the virtual cyber world, many things could be unsynchronized and may go undetected by humans. This in turn will introduce errors and create a false representation in our virtual cyber environment. Timing and synchronization are important in our physical construction world, but progress can be made if problems are encountered along the way. However, the same can’t be said in our virtual cyber world. Our desired end results will not be achieved without our systems of systems being built and operating with precise timing and synchronization, all of which is beyond the sensory limits of humans to detect and react. We can only manage and control through other systems. In construction the concept and requirements for integrity are well understood, and by using past experience and best practices, the physical integrity of structures can be maintained. Holes are carefully drilled into structures, joists are not removed, and load bearing walls are not compromised. In the cyber world the need for integrity of our systems of systems is just as important, but exponentially harder to manage and control. Changes, modifications, additions and deletions all have some impact on the overall performance of our cyber environment. Not only can they affect timing and synchronization, but they may take away expected functionality, add new features that are not used, extend an already complex system, and more importantly, create unknown vulnerabilities, instability, and errors into a previously stable environment. The methodologies used to maintain integrity in the physical construction world do not translate well, or scale, in the cyber world. Newly developed and evolving approaches, tools, capabilities, and operational concepts are being introduced, but the analogous need is evident.
The virtual cyber world continues to rapidly advance into unknown areas and create unexpected results that are both beneficial and alarming. We will continue to build and construct in both the physical and cyber environment and can bring to bear past experiences, best practices, and foundational concepts. It is an exciting time to be part of both our physical and virtual worlds as we push forward with new ideas and unexplored opportunities in an interconnected world.