Friday, August 18, 2006

Making things work - Part the second

Assuming you read part one, and followed the instructions, you have read all the project documentation, produced a good network diagram and a racking plan, and your customer is getting together the details of IP addresses and naming conventions. What's next?

If you work for a large organisation that does a lot of integration work, or perhaps for a hardware or software vendor, somewhere about the place there will be a group of people who provide technical support to customers. Even if the call centre itself is in another country, the chances are that there are a few people still on the pay roll whose business it is to go to the customer's premises and fix things when they break, and possibly perform preventive maintenance. If you are dealing with an important customer, there's a good chance that there is a support person "dedicated" to them. They're probably dedicated to a dozen other customers, too, but they'll know them reasonably well. Even if there is no dedicated engineer, the support folk may know your customer. Seek them out and enquire. Take your network diagram and rack plan.

Support staff do not have an easy life (I've done this job, so believe me on this one). Nobody calls you to tell you that they're having a nice day: they call to complain that something isn't working, and they're often upset when they do it. If you are really lucky, you get paged at 2AM by some operator in the data centre who can tell you that there is an error on his screen, but can't tell you what he was doing when the error appeared. Anyone who works in support has a vested interest in your project, because when you finish, they are going to have to support it. Their lives will be easier if you have followed accepted best practice and your racking arrangements are sensible.

Anyone who regularly does customer facing infrastructure delivery work should make every effort to be on good terms with their colleagues in Support, because you can help each other. You'll know you've struck the right balance when you can go to them and ask for advice, and when they come to you saying things like "the customer's got this device/software that we've never seen before, are you familiar with it?" What you don't want is the question "why did you idiots install it like this?"

So be up front with them: locate the people most likely to be affected by your project, and tell them about it. If it's a completely new customer, ask the support team lead who is most likely to have to take care of them, and try and engage that person. Show them your diagrams. Take their suggestions and/or criticism in good spirit. Listen to anything they can tell you about the customer and their environment. You may get gems of information such as "no project that this customer has started in the last three years has gone into production" or "you do realise that their existing kit is housed in a so-called server room constructed in the space under a staircase?". You may be told that their data centre manager is a direct blood-line decendant of Attila the Hun, and a nightmare to deal with (data centre managers would make an interesting psychological study for any one with the intestinal fortitude to tackle the subject: they tend to be obsessive control freaks of the first order). Whatever, heed the wisdom of Support. They have been on the customer's site, and you probably haven't. If they do nothing else, they can clue you in to the change control procedures that the customer uses and the building access that you can expect when you try to deliver your project's kit. I once saw a case where the data centre was located in the top story of a heritage listed building with narrow staircases, and a crane was needed to get the new equipment into place.

Support will know if the customer has power or air conditioning problems. I once saw a major telco take delivery of a large new machine (a Sun 25K), only to discover that there were insufficient power connections on the data centre floor to turn the thing on. When they got sufficient 32 AMP points put in, they found that the extra heat load of the frame overloaded their airconditioning, and the machine could only be operated for limited periods until they got an air conditioning upgrade done. Installation was rather drawn out on that one.

Learn what you can, adjust your diagrams, and move on.

By now you should know what you are installing, and what it is supposed to do. You should be able to work out what skill sets you will need to complete the job, and the approximate order in which you are likely to need them. Tell the project manager who you are going to need, and when (I'm assuming here that you can get the skills you need in-house. If you can't, then the project manager will need time to find a external resource). Resourcing issues should now keep them occupied while you tackle the next critical task...

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