His track record as director of technology at Reed.co.uk shows that Mark Ridley is not afraid to take unconventional decisions.
“Everything apart from Windows Active Directory is run in a software as a service environment," he says.
The recruitment website uses Google Apps in the cloud for email and calendar functionality, while the company’s intranet uses Jive, which is hosted externally. OneLogin provides cloud-based single sign-on for the software as a service (SaaS) applications, while AirWatch is used for mobile device management (MDM).
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“Instead of rolling out Windows, we are offering devices that people can use to connect to the internet,” says Ridley. In fact, the company has recently deployed 100 Google Chrome desktops for its sales staff to access Google Apps and Salesforce.com.
“We never set out thinking we could deliver corporate IT through a browser, but everyone here loves the internet. It’s our job, so there is a lot of familiarity with web-based systems.”
Building an IT department
Mark Ridley started working at Reed in 1997 as a web developer. At the time, the website was a startup business within the recruitment firm. In 2007, following a consultation with McKinsey, Reed.co.uk became a separate entity.
"We wanted to look at how to monetise our platform," he says. Initially Reed.co.uk used Reed's IT systems. At the start of 2012, the company decided to go its own way with IT.
Desktop IT was based on a virtual desktop using Wyse terminals, which have a heavy server requirement. There were two drawbacks: Wyse required a Windows client access licence to enable users to run a Windows desktop on the terminal; and Wyse needed internal IT expertise.
As an alternative to desktop virtualisation, Ridley says Reed.co.uk looked at remote desktops, provided through a hosting contract, but the cost per desktop per month was much higher than putting a physical PC on a desk. Users have less flexibility with thin clients, since they cannot be used as standalone devices, he adds.
From an IT perspective, Ridley says the role of the team is to administer cloud-based systems: “People in our internal team are not enterprise architects or heavyweight admins, [but] they are able to understand permissions management, such as who should have access to what.”
His approach to specialist IT skills involves buying in few days of consultancy a year. “You don’t need a disk I/O specialist all the time,” he says. “I learnt 15 years ago not to be within kicking distance of the servers because they always fall over.”
For deep technical expertise, such as when he needs Unix skills, Ridley uses IT services firm Attenda. The firm has worked for Reed.co.uk since 2003, building and hosting the Microsoft Internet Information Server recruitment website.
Google choice not without challenges
Reed.co.uk recently moved to Google Enterprise, with Office 365 losing out to Google. One of the reasons behind his decision was a Microsoft licensing clause that would have affected the company’s IT strategy: "Office 365 with E3 seemed attractive, but it did not cover Office on virtual desktops."
At the time, virtualisation was part of his plans for desktop IT, so the company selected Google instead.
It is an interesting decision, as Reed.co.uk has acted as a Microsoft reference for SQL Server in the past, but Ridley’s decision illustrates a disconnect between the various Microsoft businesses. He recently told Computer Weekly: “It would fantastic if when you contacted to Microsoft you talked to one person, not a different person for Office and SQL Server.”
He uses the Google operating system himself, albeit within MacOS. “I use a Chrome remote desktop on my Mac, so Chrome is effectively my primary machine at the moment, and one of our guys has Chromium running on a PC at home.”
Switching from Microsoft to Google is not easy, however, and Ridley warns that using Google presents a few hidden challenges.
“SQL Server reporting doesn’t work very well outside Internet Explorer,” he says.
Reed.co.uk recently moved to Google Enterprise, with Office 365 losing out to Google
Google Drive, which Reed uses for enterprise-wide file sharing, has a few unique challenges that people need to be aware of, according to Ridley. “With Google Drive, if I drop a file in a certain location, I would be the owner and would then share ownership. But if I left the company, other users would lose access to the file.”
Its new SAP system also has a few compatibility niggles, which means active users in HR and Finance will be using Microsoft Office on Windows PCs to access the system. For the sales team, who use Chrome-based PCs, a sales team leader will need to enter holiday information via a Windows PC into the SAP system.
As part of building a new IT department, Reed.co.uk is rolling out SAP ByDesign, which replaces a legacy Reed corporate system based on Lotus Notes and Oracle. One of the difficulties Ridley faces is that the user interface for SAP ByDesign uses Microsoft Silverlight, which is not supported in Chromium.
However, SAP is building a pure browser-based user interface written in HTML 5.0, so he hopes he will soon be back on track with browser-based enterprise IT by the end of the year.
Unique choices to fit the business
The move away from Microsoft on the desktop shows that it is possible to provide a corporate desktop that does not rely on Windows or Office.
“We looked at Windows 7 devices, Chrome devices and Linux devices through Ubuntu Advantage. There was a compelling argument to use Chrome due to its remote admin tools," says Ridley.
The Google Chrome desktop was also cheaper than an equivalent Windows desktop PC.
There was a compelling argument to use Chrome due to its remote admin tools
Mark Ridley, Reed.co.uk
Ridley admits it was quite a foolhardy decision to switch to ChromeOS and Google hardware. "Buying Windows would have been a bit like buying IBM [the natural choice], but the Chrome boxes can be plugged into the network and work." He says no extra configuration was needed.
This is not the only decision Ridley has taken that has run contrary to conventional wisdom. While there is a trend to virtualise server applications, Ridley has gone the other way. He says it was cheaper to run the Reed.co.uk website on 2U and 3U physical servers than to virtualise.
To maintain performance during the inevitable spikes in traffic, Ridley says he simply ensures there is enough capacity to cope.
That said, he is keen to move to the cloud and use cloud services as a commodity for offloading work. "I would want to offload some work to Amazon Web Services and Azure, and select between them depending on the cost at the time."