Scalability can mean different things in different businesses.
It might mean the ability to hire more employees, expand to new locations or even ramp up production to meet a rise in demand for your product. In the context of IT, scalability is your computing infrastructure’s ability to grow or shrink on demand. In other words, scalability is a lot like responsiveness—it’s your infrastructure’s ability to flex as needed.
Why is scalability important?
Let’s take the best-case scenario. You’ve got a small business making gadgets. One day, a marketing piece goes viral, and you are flooded with purchase orders. Scalability is how your business can expand its infrastructure to accommodate that increase in business.
In an IT sense, scalability is your network’s ability to handle the influx of data.
Not just for your hosted website (although presumably you’d want maximum uptime for your sales page so as not to lose any potential sales), but also for tracking customers and their orders, managing inventory, allowing employees to pull up information about the widget, or recording interactions with customers.
If you’ve a mind for databases, you’re probably imagining how a massive flood of data like this can strain your architecture. If you hire employees to handle the sudden increase in business, scalability is the means to provision IT resources for all those new hires.
You probably want to be able to sell gadgets to everyone who wants one (and hopefully without making them wait very long). You want to track all those clients and purchases in a database in case you want to sell them another gadget later on. And you’ll probably need to do financial reporting.
Let’s also take the opposite example. Say the surge is over, and the hive-mind has turned its attention away from your gadgets. Your sales levels drop to pre-viral levels, and you need to downsize quickly, before costs eat up all your profits. You need a solution that will allow you to scale down quickly, and not leave a chunk of capital locked up. If you bought a lot of hardware, it might be difficult to get rid of it.
Scalability is about achieving business goals
Scalability is usually about increasing your business’ ability to meet increasing demand. But that’s not always the case. Here are some ways that scalability is relevant – and ways that the inability to scale can hurt your business.
Routine hardware refresh
You don’t see the need to keep up with the latest and greatest hardware, but you have noticed that with the latest web browser updates, your system just isn’t running as quickly as it used to. Clicking a link to submit a government form, or even searching a map database, takes three to four times as long as before.
In order to maintain the current scale of your business, you’ll need to upgrade to the latest versions of your software applications. But if they aren’t compatible with older equipment, it could cramp your ability to keep up with business, probably requiring a substantial purchase of newer equipment.
In this case, scalability is tied in with a steady level of business – you need to scale slightly to keep up.
Expanding to a new location
Business is booming, and you’ve got enough employees that you need a bigger business location. You’ve got a place in mind, you’ve got enough employees to justify the move, and you’ve got a workload that will generate enough revenue that the move makes sense.
But the building isn’t set up with any kind of network. You’ll have to move existing servers, plus install switches and network cables in order to provide IT resources to all the employees. That’s going to cost a lot of money – more than you can afford right now. But you can’t afford to start losing customers for lack of business capacity, either.
In this case, scalability is tied in with the lifeblood of your business – you’re stuck in a holding pattern until you can expand your infrastructure and facilitate growth.
You’re recovering from – or preventing – a cyberattack
Cybercrime is one of the fastest-growing threats to modern business, and most of the targets are small- and medium-sized businesses. This is often due to lack of training or lack of access to cutting-edge security technology.
One advantage that larger corporations have is to invest in the latest counter-criminal technology.Whether it’s better anti-malware software or training employees in the latest security methods, enterprise-level companies have the resources to make this kind of investment.Smaller businesses have to rely on less-expensive means.That could be as little as a free antivirus, the default firewall on a cable modem, and one employee who acts as a part-time IT technician.
In this case, scalability is tied to the security of your clients’ data, which can make or break your business.
Digital, virtual infrastructure is highly scalable
Ultimately, the goal of any IT department should be to make it easier for its company to achieve its goals. There are a number of ways to accomplish this.
One way is to invest early. Look at the trends in hardware, software, and security, and set aside money for buying equipment and training employees.
But a more cost-effective way to manage scalability is to rely on outsourced or managed services. Just like a business can save labor costs by outsourcing payroll, IT departments can save equipment and labor costs by outsourcing tasks, such as app development or database management.
Furthermore, new trends in cloud technology are allowing businesses to use cooperative purchasing power to alleviate infrastructure costs. Virtualization technology – the ability to build a virtual computer in the cloud – can dramatically reduce the investment cost for IT infrastructure. Even more compellingly, virtual user accounts – traditionally requiring extensive configuration – can be created in virtual space as quickly as a set of files can be copied. By virtually eliminating the equipment and labor costs of adding a user, businesses can dramatically improve their ability to scale up – or down – as business demands.