By Tom Grounds, CIO, Dillon Gage Metals
The position of CIO is a challenging one. You have to understand strategy, you have to have a good breadth of technical skills, you have to have business acumen to contribute technical solutions to solve business problems, you have to be able to lead a team, and most importantly, you have to be a fortuneteller to ensure whichever strategy and technologies you implement are not obsolete in the next three to five years. In my career, it has been rare that I’m starting with a Greenfield organization where you can develop and implement the strategy before you have to begin using it. Typically, I have had to walk in to clean up a mess or retool an existing situation. In other words, developing a strategy while keeping the lights on. Many of my colleagues have a substantial technical footprint in place and adding a Cloud Strategy to that is the next logical step of evolution. For me, I had the opportunity to develop an IT strategy that was the cloud. Let me explain: At my own company, Dillon Gage Metals, I walked into the perfect storm of events. The entire data center was at the end-of-life stage; the base technologies on that infrastructure were three versions behind and hadn’t been patched. And many of the key technologies were about to go unsupported. Add to that a vulnerable environment where power and connectivity disruption were such the norm that when the power went out in our facility, my executive peers didn’t even flinch. To make matters even more challenging, the enterprise was at the beginning of an industry-changing digital strategy that required a stable technical foundation.
“The additional benefit that you gain in Azure IaaS is the ability to spin up new servers in minutes”
Sustainable Three-pronged Strategy
As with most CIOs, we are always being asked to do more with less. So, how do you optimize the effort of your team so that they can focus on the strategic business systems while still providing the commodity services?
Software as a Service (SaaS). You are able to shift the burden of infrastructure, redundancy, high-availability, OS patching, application patching, storage, support and innovation to a trusted provider. We moved Exchange, Skype, SharePoint, Project Server, CRM, Compliance issues, eDiscovery, Desktop Software provisioning and deployment, and Rights Management all to Office 365. My team is no longer spending time on any of that, other than administering the licenses. Substantial operational savings to help reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). It means that we become focused on new features and enhancements of all of these applications and implement thinking as a business person to continue to evolve. In the next year we are evaluating the full replacement of our phone system with Skype for Business, providing call center functionality to our trade floor with integration to our ERP, integrating chat from our online trading platform and retaining full audit ability of those conversations.Again, reducing the need to focus the hardware, patches, upgrades, storage, long-distance, conference bridge and international expansion challenges.
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)—Removing the hardware replacement cycle. Every three to five years each organization is faced with a hardware refresh. In some organizations, this is a monthly ac-tivity based on when equipment was acquired. We will never remove this cycle completely; however, we were able to dramatically reduce it by moving our entire data center to Azure IaaS. We still keep a small local footprint for access control, security systems and domain controllers, but all production systems are in Azure. In this environment you don’t remove the need to properly architect redundancy, fail-over, high-availability and all of the other technical aspects as if it were in your own data center, on premise or in a co-location facility. Having a very good enterprise architect who understands and knows how to implement these concepts is critical in the IaaS space. Operationally, you still have your OS patching, your application upgrades and the regular monitoring of performance. The additional benefit that you gain in Azure IaaS is the ability to spin up new servers in minutes. I mean, how many of us are actually involved in the planning with the business as they need new applications and technical services to get enough lead-time to purchase and install equipment? It rarely happens. With IaaS my team is able to make up for the lack of planning and provide what is needed fairly quickly.
Platform as a Service (PaaS). This is the key part of our strategy that removed for us the need to focus on the underlying infrastructure and shift the focus to the applications that drive our business. Operationally, there is no more patching of the OS, no upgradation of underlying technologies and applications – just a focus on the business application. Redundancy and auto-scaling for performance is moved to the application to keep track of and respond to as required. There is an organizational benefit from leveraging PaaS that not many CIOs initially see. Peter Senge hit the nail on the head with his book “The Fifth Discipline.” Here he identifies a challenge to all technology workers about how to continually learn and remain relevant. There was a time when the solution to any custom application was a Server running an OS and IIS to serve up Web applications which moved to VMs doing basically the same thing – both requiring competent Enterprise Architects to construct the infrastructure allowing predicted traffic, redundancy needs and scalability patterns. Now, with the use of WebApps, MobileApps, API Management and IoT frameworks, the approach has changed. You cannot ignore these new methods, nor can your teams. I have heard some technical resources complain about “how much PaaS changes” and the “reacting” to these changes. However, if you subscribe to Mr. Senge’s premise that every organization, to remain relevant, must become a learning organization, this sets the right framework where constant education is a daily task. I’m impressed by the resources that Microsoft makes available to understand the roadmap, be involved with the teams developing these services and the community that has been built around Azure to enable this continued education.
The Strategy Continues to Evolve
Over the past three years, the strategy initially put in place continues to evolve as Microsoft makes their investment in their cloud offerings and persists to not only support our current business, but make many of our future key initiatives possible. However, and yes – there is always a “but,” I have to continue to educate myself on what is available and be involved in shaping the direction, so that this strategy continues to support the businesses of Dillon Gage Metals.