The evolution of IT at PBS

Von Gary H.

Andre Mendes, the chief technology integration officer at the Public Broadcasting Service, has formal training in biology, and he told Premier 100 attendees Tuesday that the evolution of IT is similar to that of living organisms. Over the millennia, he said, organisms have successively adopted "common standards" such as DNA, at higher and higher levels of abstraction, with differentiation such as human intelligence emerging at still higher levels.

The same thing is going on in computing, he said.

It"s not just an abstract notion, he argued in his presentation, "Evolution Through Abstraction: On The Way to Utility Computing." Taking advantage of abstraction layers -- essentially the point at which something becomes a commodity -- can reap enormous benefits. Abstraction layers make technology essentially disappear, "allowing you to concentrate on your mission," he said.

Mendes showed how PBS, over a period of seven years, has done just that. In 1998, here"s what Mendes had in his IT shop in Alexandria, Va.: six hardware platforms, eight operating systems, five network protocols, five database platforms, all server-attached storage and overall availability below 99 percent and falling.

PBS slashed complexity and costs in each of these categories by standardizing on Ethernet, TCP/IP, Intel, Windows, Linux, SQL Server, SAN-based storage and browser-based applications. He cut IT staff by 45 percent, reduced the data center footprint by 80 percent, trimmed the server hardware devoted to testing, chopped maintenance efforts by 77 percent and slashed server provisioning time by 75 percent.

Meanwhile, availability increased to 99.91 percent in 2001 and 99.992 percent this year.

All of the recent downtime has been due to human error and application software bugs, Mendes said. "We have created abstraction layers at four levels: networking, (computer) hardware, storage and operating systems," he said. "At those levels, we have experienced no downtime."

It wasn"t easy, he acknowledged. "It caused platform religious wars," he said. "I lost staff over this; some just couldn"t accept it."

One religious war continues at PBS, but it has a silver lining, Mendes said. "I have a Windows group and a Linux group, and they compete like crazy to see who can have the least downtime."

Separately, Mendes told Computerworld, "If I compare my staff size today with the size five years ago, it is obvious that standardizing my wiring, network protocols, desktop hardware, desktop operating systems, e-mail client, office suite, server hardware and databases has resulted in tremendous efficiency. The next steps involve the outsourcing of all of these services to companies whose core competencies focus on the 99.999 percent availability that I need, but at a much lower cost."