How Cisco ACI Helped Usher in Cultural Change at InfoCamere
A couple of years ago, InfoCamere embarked on a networking journey that was about much more than networking. Our goal was to change the mindset of our network and systems engineers. Rather than thinking about networking solely in terms of hardware, we wanted them to shift their focus to software.
That shift has yielded powerful results in areas of deployment, automation, and even our DevOps culture.
An IT Department for All Of Italy
InfoCamere is the IT company for the Italian Chambers of Commerce. We aim to simplify the relationship between business owners and the Italian Chamber of Commerce.
We have data centers in Milan and Padua, and we manage the networks that connect all of the Chambers of Commerce in Italy with over 300 connection points. For over four decades, InfoCamere has managed the Business Register, the official register of Italian companies and where company information is registered and stored. As such, network security and availability are critical.
My role at the company has shifted from the governance of the technology and the mainframe system to primarily managing people along with the systems. It involves a complex infrastructure, including around 3,000 virtual machines. But as necessary as it is to manage the technology, it became just as crucial for us to shift our paradigm to software-defined networking (SDN).
The Move to a "DevOps Culture"
Our system and network engineers used to manage IT infrastructure based on hardware. There were a lot of pieces that, even though they were connected, operated independently. Network engineers concentrated on traffic and routing data between devices, but they didn’t see the bigger picture. Teams used to work in silos, separate from each other and also somewhat apart from the business.
But there were two elements behind our big push to SDN: It was time to renew parts of our infrastructure, and we saw data centers increasingly becoming more software defined. We didn’t want to buy equipment based on our old model, and we didn’t want to be left behind.
We knew where we wanted to go, but we needed to find someone to help us get there.
A New Solution from an Old Partner
We already had a long-time relationship with Cisco, who provides a lot of our networking equipment. As such, our teams have developed an intimate knowledge of Cisco solutions. Many people were very attached to the hardware and to the way we’d been working for many years. We knew that the change wasn’t going to be easy, so we decided to start by approaching Cisco directly with an eye to their software-defined solutions.
Cisco ACI hit the nail on the head. This solution helps us translate business and user intent into software constructs that dynamically provision the network, security, and infrastructure services. We could manage everything from a centralized location, which immediately altered our perception of the network as a single entity rather than various hardware pieces. We could also make changes to all of these pieces within a single pane of glass.
Once we decided to move forward with ACI, we engaged NTS out of Bolzano. Like us, they have a lot of experience with Cisco solutions. That, along with their professionalism, led us to believe they could be an effective partner.
NTS helped us design the infrastructure and the network, which has helped us effectively transition to the new model. By late 2019, ACI was fully operational in our data center in Padova. We expect to have ACI completely deployed in our Milan data center by the end of 2022.
Finding More Flexibility and Common Ground
Now that Cisco ACI is a part of our life, we’ve seen it impact InfoCamere’s business in several ways.
- ACI has facilitated a "DevOps Culture". Our network engineers used to exist on an island, which isn’t easy or practical. Since adopting ACI, we have eliminated a lot of our silos. Each engineer can oversee the network from a single point. Now that everyone can communicate using the same language and points of reference, our engineers better interact with developers and personnel responsible for service delivery. Now, we are dedicated to the services and not dedicated to the infrastructure.
- Our technical team is ready to become a business enabler. We work faster and closer together, and everyone feels more integrated into the business. By working more closely we can create better services for the end user.
- Thanks to automation, management is much easier. Increased automation means fewer people have to manage the network, and we can make updates at the click of a button. For example, we have around 100 switches, and when there was a problem or we needed to update those switches, it took a lot of time. People would work day and night to get the job done. Today, a single action controls everything, and we can spend our time more effectively. Enhanced automation also means that we can manage the system in a less error-prone environment.
- Our infrastructure is more scalable and flexible. Our team has changed throughout our transition. Even though we have fewer people managing our network than we have ever had, they are incredibly knowledgeable, particularly regarding automation, scalability, and configuration changes.
Developing People as Well as a Network
A manager’s job is to delegate tasks, but a big part of developing people and their skills. Every day, I make it a point to ask my team members, “What are you learning today?” I want to help them continuously learn to become more effective, and together, we become more competitive.
Shortly before our shift to SDN, I had moved into a managerial role with 70 direct reports. These were significant changes for a lot of people, and it hasn’t been easy for everyone. We have many employees who have been at InfoCamere for more than 30 years, and they were reluctant to change the way they’d been working for so long. Some people chose to move to other teams instead.
But part of my responsibility is to drive competency and stimulate people, so I stated our vision and objective for moving to SDN: to create a professional and networking situation that would last a long time. Because it wasn’t just that this shift would benefit InfoCamere; it would be an excellent opportunity for individuals’ professional development. Within a few years, we believe that a system engineer who can’t program won’t find a job. That realization was vital in creating interest in this new way of working.
A Paradigm Shift Charted Our Path Forward
With the adoption of ACI, InfoCamere is more agile. Our people are energized and motivated because they get to work with state-of-the-art technology and contribute more directly to the company’s outcomes. We can manage the network in a safer environment with fewer problems, and by gaining knowledge, the team has become more valuable to the company.
We have a group of professionals who can speak to each other more effectively, enabling our company to develop services faster. This communication helps us stay competitive, and I’m proud to say that we can adapt to our customers’ needs more than ever before.