Avoiding the IT rust belt

Living in the Midwest, I consider what life is like in the Rust Belt, where aging manufacturing companies have come and gone. When I first moved to St. Louis, all three of the domestic car makers had plants here: now we are down to just one of them. I was talking to a friend of mine who mentioned that she is seeing something similar: some enterprises are still stuck with their “rust belt” version of IT services and have yet to make their move. Whether their businesses will suffer the same fate as some of the manufacturing industry is hard to say.

So I thought I would talk to another friend of mine, who is the IT director at a Midwest steel mill and get his perspective. He has a small IT shop of six people but they are doing some interesting things to keep their plant competitive. “We can’t really innovate on our product line, but we have to do things from an IT perspective to serve our customers better and become more productive and cost effective,” he told me. Here is how he does it:

Get rid of aging equipment. While he still has a few Windows XP machines around, most of his IT gear is the latest and greatest. He is in the process of upgrading his Cisco network infrastructure, for example. Some of his most ancient computers that run his plant are connected to logic controllers, just because they don’t require much horsepower and they are on the plant floor where the environment is brutal. “Eventually, we will replace these when they break or migrate one of our older office PCs to there.”

Beware of legacy systems. “We were able to leapfrog other steel companies with our technology, because when we started the company we didn’t nave many legacy systems.” Now he has three developers who build custom apps that are used for handling their steel inventory and steel operations, along with a customer portal. For example, his team built a custom automated scheduling system when one of the two people in that department retired. Now it takes the remaining staffer just part of the day to do the scheduling, and they have cut wasted product and improved their steel yields tremendously, saving them money too.

Make use of the cloud and virtualization where it makes sense. “When I started with the company, we had a single PC server that was running everything. Now we have virtual servers and are looking at converged storage infrastructure too.” One of his first decisions was to employ Google Apps for their enterprise email. “That was a slam-dunk and one of the best decisions I ever made.”  He is looking at acquiring other cloud-based apps as well,

Vendor flexibility. Part of moving to the cloud means making use of services that don’t require vendor lock-in “I want to have options to migrate away from them if things don’t work out. That is why I haven’t gotten involved in SAP or Salesforce yet, there isn’t any easy way to walk away from them.”

Segregate production and office networks. As the stories from the German steel mill in December can testify, having totally separated networks between the office and the mill are critical. Hackers used an infected email to literally trash one of the mills. “We have different networks and vLANs so this won’t happen to us.”

Your own rust belt conditions might differ, for example, you might still be using Systems Network Architecture on your mainframes, or connecting via Frame Relay networks. So it might be a good time to reconsider these and other technologies, and start investing in your future. (The building pictured above is from an old automotive plant that has been renovated into condos, by the way.)

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