In twenty-five words or less, what business value did you gain from your last operating system upgrade? A return on investment (ROI) analysis is an acceptable substitute.

Can’t do it in twenty-five words? Sorry, that’s all you get. Business leaders don’t have time for more than a few bullet points on any subject such as an operating system upgrade that isn’t directly related to the health of the company. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t upgrade. It means “business value” is the wrong question.

We upgrade our operating systems for two reasons. We may want the new features and bug fixes offered by the upgrade. More likely, we simply need to stay current, because in the long run we have no choice. If we don’t, eventually some application, DBMS or utility we need won’t run on our obsolete OS.

An OS upgrade is part of what we have to do to provide a working computing environment. Business value comes from the capabilities, performance and reliability of that computing environment, not from any single element of it.

From the perspective of technical architecture, the subject we’ve been flogging for the past several weeks, it’s the platform layer that provides your company’s computing environment.

Managing the platform layer starts with a list of every platform you support. “Platform” includes hardware, operating systems, database management systems, languages, hubs, routers, cabling systems … everything that’s “under the hood”.

Some software will be hard to classify. Electronic mail, for example, sometimes acts as a platform and sometimes as an application. Don’t worry about it too much — just decide where you want to manage the hard-to-classify stuff so it isn’t forgotten.

Make the platforms the rows of a large grid. In the columns, list the computing functions you provide and support. In the cells of the grid, place a score wherever a platform provides a computing function.

For example, you may use Solaris (platform) as an application server (computing function), the Oracle DBMS (platform) as your enterprise client/server DBMS (computing function) and DB2 (platform) as your DBMS for host-based computing (computing function). Some platforms provide computing functions used by other platforms. You may, for example, use Windows NT as the OS platform for your departmental DBMS. Don’t get confused by this.

Each score is your assessment of how satisfactorily a particular platform delivers its computing function. You may use a fairly subjective score, or you can be more precise, devising a scoring system that weighs performance, stability, and other factors such as market presence and vendor quality.

Only list direct linkages or you’ll go nuts trying to sort it all out. Don’t, for example, link your Dell Poweredge (platform) to “file and print services” (computing function). Link the Poweredge to the Network Server Hardware computing function. It’s Netware 4.x that’s linked to file and print services.

You can use this grid in several ways. For example, you can use it to find platform redundancies. When you have more than one platform supporting a single computing function, you probably have a redundancy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it should be a conscious choice, not an accident.

Having two platforms supporting the same computing function also may signal an incompatibility — you installed the second platform because the first didn’t support a key application, perhaps. Incompatibilities happen, but you should monitor them because vendors sometimes resolve incompatibilities, providing you with opportunities to simplify your architecture.

You may find the grid useful when managing upgrades, too — it quickly documents which computing functions will be affected by any platform upgrade.

You can also use it as a planning tool. If a business change drives the need for a new computing function, add it to the grid and figure out whether you can (and should) support it with an existing platform.

The platform/computing function grid isn’t magic. You may find a simpler, more conceptual approach, works better.

It isn’t complete, either, because by itself it doesn’t help you understand how everything works together to provide a complete, integrated computing environment.

We’ll talk about that little subject next week.