The Zero-Product Property of IT

Network and applications. Operations and developers. IT and the business. These relationships are technical, personal, and organizational and all require each other to flourish.  


If you ask someone to describe the kinds of animals that are in the ocean they probably think of odd invertebrates like jellyfish and octopuses and of course the colorful, strange looking fish. They might also mention the corals or in particular the coral reefs – those long stretches of undersea “gardens” in which an exotic array of animals (or are they plants?) make their homes.

Anyone who’s seen “Finding Nemo” knows there is often a symbiotic relationship between anemones and certain types of clownfish, but not many are aware that there are even more interesting symbiotic relationships going on inside those brightly colored, strangely shaped corals comprising the reef upon which the anemone often makes its home.

“Corals are classified as being zooxanthellate when they possess zooxanthellae in their tissues. These corals are also termed symbiotic…In contrast, azooxanthellate corals lack zooxanthellae and can live in darkened conditions… Such corals are also referred to as aposymbiotic

In general terms, the symbiotic types will adapt much more readily to aquarium conditions and can often be expected to live for years. On the other hand, the aposymbiotic corals in captivity need to be fed regularly with planktonic foods. They are much more demanding of care and nutritional input, and many are very difficult to keep alive in the typical aquarium…”

-- Aquarium Corals: Selection, Husbandry, and Natural History, Eric Borneman

One of the ways in which a coral gets its color is from those zooxanthellae, the algae that take up residence inside a coral. The algae then use photosynthesis – just like plants – to turn sunlight into food for themselves and, in turn, offer an array of nutrients for the coral that allows it to flourish and grow. Without those algae, the coral bleaches (turns white) and can die – unless new algae take up residence before it’s too late. The relationship here is one of give and take, sharing and collaboration. The coral provides a place for the algae to safely exist while the algae offers necessary nutrients that keep the coral living and growing in the long run.

Applications and networks, today, have much the same relationship. As does operations and development, and IT and “the business.”


In mathematics, the Zero-Product property says that any number multiplied by zero is zero. We could call this the Zero-Product property of IT but that just sounds bad. The concept, regardless of what we call it, is the same. Without the network, applications are useless and vice versa. Only when we combine the two do we produce business value. If enterprise architects can get together with business folks to “align IT with the business”, why can’t network and architecture professionals bridge the smaller chasm that exists between the two groups? In the past the network was just a pipe but today, it’s smarter and application-aware through the deployment of application delivery controllers but both groups have to recognize the benefits of working together to architect a complete solution that provides even greater business value in addition to offering a means by which they can achieve the operational efficiency that is demanded of IT. The business sees the end-product, the solution – it doesn’t split hairs over whether poor performance is an application or network issue, it just sees the poor performance.

See, it’s not just applications and networks that need each other, it’s IT and the business, too. They are both symbiotic relationships, with both relying upon one another.

In the case of the network and the application, it is increasingly the role of devops to understand the intricate relationship between the two and enable not only collaboration between development and operations, but also between applications and network components. A holistic architectural strategy that supports the business’ demand for well performing, available, and secure applications requires collaboration with the network and its myriad infrastructure components. A laissez-faire approach to this relationship that exists naturally between the network and applications is not only inefficient, it can incur costs in the form of working around issues that could have been solved by an integrated solution and thus further impair the relationship between IT and the business.


Relationship counselors will always remind you that a good relationship takes work. The same is true for relationships in the organization and within IT. Operations and developers need to “mind meld” more often and share goals, challenges, and needs in order to determine how best to implement solutions that will in turn enhance IT’s relationship with the business by providing business value and supporting business-level goals.

Business stakeholders should not just throw application requirements “over the wall” to IT any more than developers should throw an application “over the wall” to operations. These walls, these siloes, are not healthy for the relationships that are required to successfully develop, deploy, and maintain the applications that support the business and therefore the bottom line. These relationships require time and attention and understanding. Each group needs to “get to know better” the other and what’s more, they need to have some understanding of the challenges involved in bringing a business solution to fruition. The relationships in an organization are symbiotic. Today, you can’t have one without the other. Applications and networks are similarly paired and it is impossible to extricate one from the other without doing serious damage.

When caring for corals, one does not feed the zooxanthellae separately from the coral itself, even though they are technically separate organisms. The two are treated as a single entity that needs to be cared for as a whole in order to flourish. The needs of both must be met in order for such animals to grow and propagate in captivity.

IT needs to do the same for applications and their supporting infrastructure. Addressing challenges with application scalability or security may mean tweaking or adding infrastructure, or leveraging capabilities available with application delivery infrastructure. It is up to IT – and increasingly to devops – to understand the relationship between applications and the network and optimally manage both as a single, unified entity. It’s the best way to enable applications, which are heavily dependent on the network today, to flourish and sustain growth in the data center.

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Published Jan 12, 2011
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