Many if not most mid- and large-sized business enterprises and government or non-governmental organizations employ in whole or in part an IT infrastructure based on Microsoft products and solutions. To learn more about what it takes to successfully design and implement a large-scale Microsoft-centric architectural solution, I interviewed Raymond Comvalius, an independent IT architect and trainer from the Netherlands. Raymond is the author of multiple books on Windows and security. As an architect he supports organizations in IT strategy and realization of their next generation workplace infrastructure. Raymond is actively involved with the national and international IT community and was a speaker at multiple international Microsoft events. Raymond runs a blog at http://www.nextxpert.com and is active on Twitter as @nextxpert. His LinkedIn URL is https://nl.linkedin.com/in/raymondcomvalius.
MITCH: Raymond thank you very much for taking time out from your work to let us interview you here on WindowsNetworking.com.
Raymond: Hi Mitch, thank you for the invitation. It is my pleasure to be here interviewed by WindowsNetworking.com.
MITCH: In recent years there have been a lot of reports in the news about large IT projects going off the rails. Based on your own observations, what are some tell-tale indicators that a big implementation or migration project might be in danger of failing?
Raymond: In my opinion the most important part of the project is at the start when the organization has to define its goals and the requirements for the solution. When the goals are unclear, disaster is around the corner. Same is for the realization. It is very important that enough time is reserved to gather and write down the requirements before you start building. Time pressure to skip this part of the project is never a good sign.
MITCH: What are some of the best practices that IT infrastructure architects need to follow in order to ensure the success of the project?
Raymond: Stick to your principles and always keep the end user in mind. Things are never too complex to understand. Make sure that you totally understand the concepts behind the proposed solution before you agree to it. While IT is complex, it’s still not rocket science in my opinion.
MITCH: It seems like only a short time ago that implementing a Microsoft-centric infrastructure meant building a datacenter and firewalling it against the Internet. Today however organizations have to choose between the traditional approach and using private clouds, public clouds, or hybrid clouds for their infrastructure. How has “the cloud” changed the job of the infrastructure architect?
Raymond: It is already more than 10 years ago when I saw Steve Riley — at that time architect for Microsoft — present the TechEd Session “Death of the DMZ”. This idea of taking down firewalls to protect the corporate network is not that new at all. The choice we now have to make is between private, public and hybrid cloud. This has brought a new dimension to infrastructure design and is a huge opportunity for organizations to get more agile with their IT infrastructure. Did it change the job? Well in my opinion not that much for us IT architects. IT management and service providers are the ones who are far more impacted. I as an architect have to deal with the new environment, but the work is still about integration of infrastructure components as a basis for secure and solid delivery of services and applications.
MITCH: It was also only a few years ago that enterprise architects frequently found themselves busy trying to integrate solutions from multiple vendors. For example, in the directory space there was Active Directory and NetWare; for database Oracle and SQL Server; for messaging Exchange and Lotus Notes; for virtualization VMware and Hyper-V. Today however Microsoft commands a good portion of the enterprise application space and is gaining ground in other areas like virtualization. But the cloud must also offer integration challenges for Microsoft architects since AWS is still the dominant player and others like Rackspace, Google and even Dropbox establishing footholds in enterprise environments. What trends do you see for large and small companies in regard to which cloud solutions they’re gravitating towards, and why?
Raymond: My clients are mostly focused on Microsoft for their cloud solutions. Especially in my area where I usually deal with office automation, I hardly see anything else. I sometimes see AWS, SalesForce or Hadoop passing by for integration. The good thing about Microsoft’s current strategy is that it is open towards other vendors. The time when Microsoft used to modify known technologies into something that only work with Microsoft products has long gone. This really helps when working with specialists in other areas to get to much better and easier integration then we could ever get before.
MITCH: What are some of the biggest integration challenges facing architects designing Microsoft-centric infrastructures these days? Which platforms or cloud services are hardest to integrate with or migrate away from?
Raymond: The biggest integration challenges today I have encountered are with mobile solutions. This is the area where Microsoft totally missed it and now has to adjust to the situation that it must integrate with platforms that are not theirs. Intune and EMS are on their way, but it will be a while that most of us will have to deal with mobile device management solutions from other parties. And even if we have a client that has chosen to use the Microsoft solution, the mobile devices will not be from Microsoft.
MITCH: Which Microsoft technologies and solutions do you find the most fun to work with? I’m assuming your job isn’t all pain and is fun sometimes…
Raymond: My job is absolutely no pain. I’m enjoying it every day. It’s actually hard for me to say what my favorite technology is. On the cloud end I love the direction where Azure Active Directory is heading and the things we are able to do with hybrid identities. Office 365 is also a solution that I enjoy every day, even though it still has some challenges. As a Microsoft MVP in the area of Windows and Devices I also love Windows 10, but I’ll get back to that part later.
MITCH: Which Microsoft technologies or solutions are you most frustrated or disappointed with? Besides Windows 10 I mean…
Raymond: My number one frustration has been Windows Phone or Windows Mobile as it is called nowadays. I don’t even know where to start here. I once was an absolute fan of Windows Phone and I truly believed for a long time that Microsoft was about to be a serious player in the mobile field. That changed last year when I noticed how Windows 10 Mobile was actually a step back from Windows Phone 8.1. Then I saw Microsoft’s attention focusing more and more towards Android and IOS. Now I am unsure if and when Windows Mobile will ever be a challenger for those two market leaders again.
MITCH: The reason I exempted Windows 10 from my previous question is because it seems like a special case. IT pros who have been reading our weekly newsletter WServerNews over the last year have no doubt noticed the almost unbridled hostility that many of our almost 100,000 subscribers have been expressing towards Windows 10. While most of the feedback we’ve received has been from small businesses or individual users, even some of our enterprise readers have expressed their frustration over the new release model and deployment methodologies. What is your own take concerning Windows 10 from the perspective of an IT architect who has to plan and implement deployment and migration solutions for customers?
Raymond: Windows 10 and Windows as a Service is a much needed reaction by Microsoft to the new reality in IT. Change is happening much faster nowadays and if Microsoft did not respond (with Windows 10) the OS would become irrelevant in a few years. We’ve seen what happened to BlackBerry. Without a serious change in the market approach, Microsoft was going to be next. I understand from an IT management perspective that the fast change that Windows as a Service brings to the platform is not something you have been looking for. But, in my opinion the world around us demands such agility and at least the possibility to adapt quickly. The days that we were able to stick to an OS for 10+ years like many did with Windows XP are definitely over.
MITCH: Let’s talk a bit about your profession for a moment. Say someone has been in IT for a few years doing admin or small consulting work, and they’d like to move up and become an architect and work more in the enterprise space. What might be a good roadmap for them to follow in order to move closer to their goal?
Raymond: First of all, you must love IT, because you will have to live with it day and night to build your knowledge and keep up with how technology revolves. What I do is focus on a specific area for a while and make sure that I totally understand what it is all about. Most of the time I am able to use that knowledge to do infrastructure design for that technology as part of a project or deliver some training. Then it’s time to move on to the next thing. I did that for instance with Active Directory, Security and PKI, Windows Client design, and others. Over time you’ll gain knowledge of an array of technologies and start to see how they relate to each other. This is how I became an IT infrastructure architect.
MITCH: That’s very helpful! I also see from your LinkedIn profile that you’re active as a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT). I was active myself as an MCT way back in the late 90s before I got into writing. I’m sure the role of MCT has changed a lot since then. What’s it like being an MCT these days?
Raymond: Yes, I am still an MCT. I have not been in front of a class lately, but I will be back there soon. What I see during preparation is that the classroom has not changed that much. The biggest change is that much of the learning infrastructure now comes from the cloud. The demand in student numbers is lower, because much more information is freely available from multiple sources on the Internet.
MITCH: You’ve also written a few books and courses for IT pros. Do you plan on doing more of this in the future?
Raymond: Book authoring was both a painful and rewarding experience. My first book on Windows Vista was mostly painful, as you can understand. Two other books on Windows 7 have been much more rewarding. Still writing a book is a process that requires dedication and perseverance. At that time it helped me establish my name in the industry. Nowadays technology is moving so fast that a book on Windows 10 will already be dated by the time you’re ready to publish. If I will ever start writing a book again it will be more conceptual or a novel. Today, I do not have a plan to start writing again.
MITCH: Let’s end our interview by having you tell us a bit more about yourself, like what you do in a typical workday, what your hobbies are, how you first got into IT, whatever you want to share with us.
Raymond: I was 16 years old when my school purchased its first Apple II+ computers and provided us with books to start learning programming in Basic. The lessons were about to start in two months. By the time the first lesson started, I had finished the book. Programming was my passion during those first years. I spent day and night with all sorts of projects programming in Basic, Pascal and C. By the time I was about to finish my bachelor degree, I knew that I should not proceed with programming. When I started to code I could not stop. I knew that would not be good for me in the long run so I switched to IT infrastructure. Besides computers I have a family with two teenage boys. Music has also always been important in my life. I used to play the bass, but today I listen to a lot of music and enjoy visiting concerts in Amsterdam.
MITCH: Raymond thanks again for giving us some of your valuable time. We wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors!
Raymond: You’re welcome. Thanks again for the invitation and all the best with WindowsNetworking.com!