Cisco IT is early in the journey to deploying an application centric infrastructure (ACI). This journey requires us to look at the IT organization differently. When we started evaluating what it would take to align applications to the network, we quickly realized that our organizational structure wasn’t favorable to extracting the most value from ACI. We needed an architecture team that represents all seven layers of the OSI stack, and works in sync to create tenets and policies and classify applications that conform with how we ultimately want to build out the fabric. ACI requires a completely different view of the relationship (along with a common syntax and language) between IT infrastructure and applications.

So before we dove into the technical nitty-gritty of the infrastructure, we had to assemble a program team prepared to steer the ACI effort to its end and ensure that IT has the talent equipped to lead the transformation. With affirmation from the highest ranks in IT, this wouldn’t be a process of eliminating jobs but rather an exercise in creating value and aligning the right talent.

We started by asking ourselves a series of foundational questions. Some of the key ones I’d like to share with you here.

1. What are the major criteria of the program team?

An ACI program will have a quicker time to value if the infrastructure team partners with application development teams to lay out a comprehensive application mapping strategy. A dedicated, cross-functional team must be prepared to last through the long haul. The program should represent and address the needs of IT and business stakeholders across the company. Our IT stakeholders are from operations, infrastructure, application development, security, and services.

Program leads must understand business clients’ wants and needs and address them early in the ACI rollout. Stakeholder application requirements and IT capabilities should align to the ACI program and strategic imperatives.

Depending on company size and the number of applications, an ACI program can last for a few years. After a year or 18 months, the program could possibly be scaled down and folded into regular fleet upgrade cycles. But it’s prudent to plan for heavy lifting and top-priority commitment from the program team for the first year at a minimum.

2. What level of executive support is required?

Buy-in at the executive level is paramount. Cisco IT has sponsorship and ongoing support from our CIO, and our senior vice presidents of infrastructure, customer-facing applications, and business client stakeholders across Cisco (Human Resources, Finance, etc.).

3. Who will own and lead the program?

Day-to-day activities and decision-making are run by a senior director in IT who has more than 10 years of experience managing a variety of programs across the organization, supporting business stakeholders, and aligning their requirements with IT capabilities. With unique insight and knowledge, he’s driving the short-term deliverables involved with rolling out ACI in our main data centers and guiding the long-term transformation of our entire environment to ACI

Do IT teams have to be realigned?

It’s critical for the IT organization to work together as a cohesive unit and align to the ACI program direction. Like we did for our Unified Computing System and IT as a Service implementations, the ACI infrastructure team blends SMEs from storage, network, and servers, both physical and logical. Integral to this mix are the application teams. After all, in an ACI architecture, applications communicate with the network, and vice versa.

Essentially, we’re transforming device management of the network to policy-based management of the infrastructure. The policies are application-aware and can optimize the application environments running on top of the infrastructure.

4. What skillsets are required within IT? Will there be mandatory or recommended training?

Cisco IT had to develop the required ACI skillsets. We trained IT SMEs, who are now starting to evangelize and socialize the basic framework and benefits of ACI to business clients and stakeholders. For these champions, we targeted high-potential employees, and also looked to volunteers who have passion and desire for ACI.

We also developed ACI certification tracks and training that are integrated into the company’s global IT Tech Education Program. Open to all IT technical employees, the structured program includes instructor-led and virtual classes, technical talks, and focus group discussions led by SMEs, Distinguished IT Engineers, and external guest speakers.

As part of the learning, Cisco IT carved out a new job role called “Full Stack Engineer” with its own certification track. This track is akin to a college student getting a minor in a secondary field of study or specialization, while completing the required undergraduate work to obtain a major. A network engineering major, for example, will still be an SME in networking. But to get an ACI certification, the SME has to develop one or more “minors” in areas such as platform as a service, application development, or database servers. This supplemental learning provides a well-rounded perspective of the IT organization, and the different view of the relationship between infrastructure and the new application-aware ACI architecture.

Cisco IT also participates in related industry events and forums, which has helped shape the ACI curriculum and our collective body of SME knowledge.

Stay tuned. In my next blog, I’ll talk about ACI news and activity revealed at Cisco Live! in San Francisco the week of May 19th.