Previously published on Innovation Enterprise.
As New Yorkers wrestle with their ailing subway system, I’ve been struck by the parallels between the challenges the MTA is dealing with and those facing operators of enterprise IT networks. These complex systems have more in common than meets the eye, and there are important lessons here for CIOs about managing large-scale infrastructure.
Both the New York subway and IT infrastructures are complex systems that carry a valuable commodity – workers, on the one hand, data on the other – over a wide area. Maintaining these systems is essential to the wellbeing of the constituents they serve.
Yet both have suffered from underinvestment and poor long-term planning, leaving them ill-equipped to support today’s needs. Daily ridership on the New York subway has nearly doubled in the last two decades to 5.7 million, yet its maintenance budget has barely changed. IT networks have fared only marginally better. Despite the emphasis on technology as a competitive weapon, worldwide IT spending increased only 12 percent over the past decade, according to Gartner.
CIOs must contend with legacy applications and equipment that make it hard to implement modern initiatives around data sharing and data analytics. There are pockets of innovation for high-value projects, but overall the challenges are similar to those facing the MTA. The troubles that have befallen the subway are a cautionary tale about what happens to vital infrastructure when it goes underfunded for too long.
Here are five parallels I see between the New York subway and enterprise IT:
The power of connections
As The New York Times noted, before the subway was built, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens were a collection of farms and villages far from the commercial hub of Manhattan. Only when these outposts were connected by the subway, allowing workers to move freely between the boroughs, could New York achieve its potential as a metropolis.
Large businesses are no different. When applications are siloed and disconnected in remote corners of the company, the information can’t be leveraged for new data initiatives or process automation. The business can never be more than the sum of its parts because the parts don’t connect to create greater value. CIOs must connect these islands of information and make data available where the real business is happening, allowing innovation to flourish.
The politics of funding
The subway and enterprise IT are both viewed as cost centers despite the essential services they provide, which means maintenance and new projects are frequently starved of funding. Some of this is political, but there’s also a good deal of short-sightedness. It’s hard to set aside funding for something that appears to be working ‘well enough.’ But starving any infrastructure of investment allows problems to develop that hold back progress and are more costly to resolve later. New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world, despite being in one of the wealthiest cities. CIOs should take note of the impact of neglect and make their case for continued investment in IT.
A bullet-proof infrastructure
Subway cars might look indestructible, but New Yorkers know that a soda can on the tracks or a signal malfunction can bring the entire service to a halt. The same is true of too much IT infrastructure. The connections we’ve built between applications are often brittle and fragile; a small coding change can bring down an entire network, as we saw with the massive Amazon outage last year. CIOs must build an architecture that’s resilient to failure or risk the type of outrage that the MTA is now feeling from its riders.
When a service fails, it’s easy to blame the most visible target. On the subway, that’s the thousands of front-line workers who run toll booths or walk miles of track in their orange safety vests. In the enterprise, it’s often the IT help desk and security admins, but they are not the ones to blame for systemic failures that build up over a number of years. A failure of upper management these days is the tendency to shirk responsibility for problems. Too often, blame falls on a rank and file engineer when the system should never have allowed for such failure in the first place. CIOs must take responsibility for the infrastructure they oversee and root out systemic weaknesses.
Out with the old
Look around any subway station and it’s easy to see that much of the crumbling infrastructure has been around for decades. No number of shiny new subway cars can make up for the fact that much of New York’s signaling system runs on cloth-covered wiring put in place a century ago.
Most enterprise data centers still contain old servers and legacy applications that can’t support the new services modern companies must build to compete effectively. CIOs must give these applications new interfaces or replace them soon, so the data they contain can be put to work for analytics, process optimization, and other projects. Applications that work ‘well enough’ can still prevent an enterprise from moving forward, and like old railway signals, they’re also potential points of failure.
New York has a long road ahead of it; years of underinvestment means it will be a long time before the city has a reliable subway system again. Fortunately, most enterprises aren’t in such a dire predicament and can avoid having such an uphill battle, but CIOs need to stay mindful of challenges like the one New York is facing. Complex infrastructure requires continuous upkeep and investment, and failure to recognize this will invariably prove costly down the road.