‘Owning the datacentre does not make sense for CIOs any more’

Lance Fisher, CIO of SThree, says the datacentre is a commodity and the problem of making it cost-effective, reliable and scalable is for vendors

Organisations must respond rapidly to changes in the marketplace and increasingly they are relying on the CIO to deliver IT power which can give them competitive advantage today and in the future – despite the fact that the rapid pace of technological change is making the crystal ball look very cloudy.

However, Lance Fisher, global CIO of specialist recruitment company SThree, believes it is the CIO’s role to embed him or herself in the business to be able to help respond to changes in the market, by ensuring agility and flexibility of systems to cope with any fluctuations in business, society and culture over the next five years.

“I need to be very embedded within the business; a key part of my role is communicating with business and IT. I sit on the executive floor and am actively involved in where the business is going over the coming years,” he says.

The company has grown organically by acquisition and now has 64 offices in 18 countries – such growth is set to continue and means that IT has to be responsive to new requirements, cost challenges and markets.

“Our company is growing rapidly and there are challenges associated with growth that will affect budgets and thinking. As CIO, I have to be close to new developments in technology because as the market changes I need to ensure we are agile. For example, we plan to go into Japan and have to have systems that work in Kanji so our databases can search Japanese CVs,” says Fisher.

Embracing mobility

Consumerisation of IT is also at the forefront of Fisher’s thinking – his company recruits bright young things, which means SThree embraces mobility and new devices and understands that consumer technology is here to stay and needs to be supported.

“We recruit bright graduates and the average age of employees is 26, so we are firmly ‘Generation Y’. Lots of CIOs don’t like mobile apps and restrict their numbers, but we support apps and bring your own device (BYOD) because it is an attraction for the best graduates to come and work for us. We were one of the first companies to adopt mobile device management technology, and we are at the forefront because we see you still have to have the technology to control the explosion in apps and devices, by ensuring enterprise-grade mobile security,” he says.

The datacentre of 2020, according to Lance Fisher

Lance Fisher, global CIO of specialist recruitment company SThree, believes the datacentre of the future will be “tall towers” or even in the sea. He admits this is a tongue-in-cheek response, but points out the problem is about more heat being generated as more power is put into place.

“The frameroom providers are always thinking of ways to solve the heat problem,” he says.

Fisher comes from a financial services background and in the past has built the company’s frameroom, but he thinks the datacentre of 2020 will not be built by CIOs: “The frameroom I built in 2002 when I was at [inter-dealer money broker] ICAP had 200 racks and 12 servers in a rack, but I would not build a frameroom now.”

He says the datacentre of today is all about energy as electricity bills rise, and that focus will continue. “There might be 48 servers available in a rack, but they need more power and cooling and as it becomes possible to throw more servers into a rack, you don’t want an inefficient frameroom with hot and cold aisles,” he says.

In the future, he predicts removing inefficiencies to reduce power consumption will be key to any successful datacentre, and that it must be done in an environmentally friendly way.

“If you think forward – how will that be solved in a green way? Maybe racks will become taller with massive towers that can be wind-cooled because heat rises. Or our datacentres will be underwater or by the sea so they can be cooled by sea water. It will all be about power and getting the most out of power to make the datacentre more efficient,” he says.

However, this will not be Fisher’s concern.

“What I do know is I don’t need to solve that problem, as to me the datacentre is a commodity. Making that efficient, cost-effective, reliable and scalable will be the datacentre vendors’ problem. For me it’s about apps, data and competitive advantage at an efficient cost. Where the frameroom is and how it runs – someone else will be thinking about that,” he says.

Over the next five years, Fisher sees social tools proliferating, bringing the need to distinguish between work and the personal world. However, he says the interesting thing is how this distinction is shifting.

“Unless you are immersed in that shifting scenario and having conversations about what it means for the business, then as a CIO you will be left behind. Consumerisation of IT is increasing and you can’t stop it. My seven-year-old twins have iPad Minis and they are very intuitive with technology. The world is becoming more social and people more mobile and SThree has taken a very adaptable approach to technologies to allow for that,” he says.

Technology differentiators

With this rapid rate of change, Fisher recognises the need to distinguish what the company’s unique selling point is and what technology differentiators make sense to support the business in the future.

What does not make sense, according to Fisher, is to own the datacentre.

“When people talk about the datacentre, most mean the frameroom and ultimately, I believe the frameroom will become a commodity. In a real-time trading environment, you might want tight control because speed is of the essence, but we are placing two people a month on average and we are not hung up about nanoseconds,” he says.

SThree has consolidated 68 databases onto a single Oracle Exadata machine, hosted by Telecity with a Citrix front end to user devices.

Delivering flexible, low-cost IT power to the business over the next five years will be a major focus.

“Our datacentre and IT strategy is driven by our business strategy and delivering competitive advantage is not based on owning the datacentre. What distinguishes my business is the data and who has the best data becomes central strategically because it’s about matching the candidate to the client and executing that efficiently,” he says.

The datacentre must be responsive to business needs, able to adapt to growth and at the same time be cost-effective. This means the future is cloud.

Currently, SThree has its own private cloud, owning the Exadata box, which is managed by Oracle’s Platinum Services.

“We can live in the cloud as long as it is secure. We need to be anal about where data is, but hosting could be done by anyone,” says Fisher.

He says there are two things going against fully hosted cloud: reliability, for example Microsoft Azure’s service going down on 29 February 2012 because of a leap year bug; and the cost model.

“In a real-time trading environment the outage would not be acceptable, but it was OK for us. However, that problem will get fixed and longer term it makes sense to choose hosting by a third party,” says Fisher.

Commoditisation move

With a commoditised frameroom and a move towards the front end being commoditised with applications able to run on any device, Fisher says the business will be able to focus on what it does best and also will be able to adapt to the increasing pace of change.

“If you look at consumerisation, the rate of change is getting faster – there were two iPads launched this year. To try and manage my infrastructure estate for change that is too fast and complex is not viable. The frameroom and the front end will be commoditised. As long as the network is up and running, we can concentrate on apps and delivering them quickly because our distinction and competitive advantage is in the data. The intellectual property [IP] is in the search algorithms and the way data is structured and organised,” he says.

Cloud costs

Fisher is convinced that the “vanilla stuff” such as having a significantly different HR or finance system does not deliver competitive advantage. While he will focus on IP and not running the frameroom, he is less convinced about the cost model of cloud and is keeping a watchful eye on price to determine any future move; and how it fits with the business strategy to triple the company’s size and global footprint in the next five years.

“The cost aspect is interesting. The argument for keeping everything on premise is, ‘I know what the cost is to acquire over five years’. If we grow from 1,500 to 5,000 employees, for example, the cost per user doesn’t increase but gets more attractive. However, cloud is charged per user, so if we grow from 1,500 to 5,000 employees, cost goes in up in a straight line. For me a lot of the thinking is around that cost model.

We can live in the cloud as long as it is secure. We need to be anal about where data is, but hosting could be done by anyone

Lance Fisher, SThree

Lance Fisher, SThree

As we increase the number of users, that cost goes up, but if we have our own private cloud the cost comes back down. The flip side is, if I’ve got a private cloud I need an infrastructure team of people who manage it, which is a cost, whereas if I have a fully hosted cloud the cost is solely per user,” says Fisher.

He says he is now in both worlds and can monitor the services issue and the cost models of private cloud versus hosted cloud.

“I need to see the advantage of flipping from a private cloud to the cost-per-user model. With the fully hosted cloud model, availability will be addressed over the coming years and if the cost model is also addressed, then we could move to fully hosted cloud,” he says.

IT team

Although the number of employees is expected to grow, Fisher does not foresee his IT team of 120 growing. Currently, half are dedicated to keeping the lights on and maintaining operations and the other half are engaged in innovation, new developments and projects.

“We provide a concierge service to users, so we are always going to need people on the ground to ensure everything is working – from apps to iPads and video conferencing as well as the infrastructure. High-quality first-line support will not essentially change over the next five years, especially as the number of employees will grow and end-user devices are becoming more varied and we need to support several apps for users globally,” he says.

The IT team also has to monitor what information goes in and out of the organisation, and he does not foresee that changing.

“I have to ensure people protect the company asset – data – even if data is hosted in the private cloud, and people understand that,” he says.

However, if the datacentre becomes increasingly commoditised and SThree moves to a hosted cloud service, he can cut down on IT staff such as database administrators and network staff – another factor in the cost model: “We will need fewer people sitting physically in IT, but the service part will cost something.”

Development decisions

Decisions also need to be made on whether development is undertaken by third parties or stays in the company. “With a mixture of in-house and third-party development, the clever thing is how to manage the glue and the enterprise architecture. We will still need business analysts and project managers,” says Fisher.

He may not be able to predict the future, but Fisher can foresee trends such as growing consumerisation of IT; the need to support more employees with ever-changing devices; stricter data protection laws increasing the premium on maintaining the security of sensitive information; and an increasingly commoditised frameroom – with moves towards a fully hosted cloud model if the price is right. Meanwhile, he is not putting all his eggs in one basket.

“Where technology can be commoditised, it will be, but key to our strategy is having fingers in lots of pies,” says Fisher.

“We don’t want to bet on everything, but with so much change we want to remain adaptable.

“It is important to talk to vendors, suppliers and mix with other CIOs because you need to keep up with all the changes to best serve your business,” he concludes.

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