Plotting a route to the datacentre of the future

Just as there are many ways to get around London, whether it is by tube, bus, bicycle or walking - all of which fall under the responsibility of Transport...

Just as there are many ways to get around London, whether it is by tube, bus, bicycle or walking - all of which fall under the responsibility of Transport for London (TfL) - there are many views about how best to run a datacentre, and Ian Campbell, TfL's CIO, is aware that there is more than one right way.

"It is important to provoke discussion about where we are going with the datacentre. Whether you think it is best to build or buy, have strong views about who should control the datacentre, believe in bricks, cloud or running the datacentre in-house, you need to look at where you are going," said Campbell.

"I believe the future of the datacentre and IT is being determined by what applications young people are building in their bedrooms and how they are using technology. They found ways to use smartphones in a way no-one anticipated so they could text for free. Now we're starting to see some great third-party applications built with TfL data, especially around our Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The future is in applications, whether they are in the datacentre or not, and no-one can predict how the next generation will act," he told fellow IT leaders at a recent Computer Weekly roundtable event, in association with Oracle.

It all starts with data

While many IT leaders are focusing on the future of the datacentre and its increasing commoditisation, Campbell said it is important to remember that, "The core of everything is data. If you can manage, control and drive your data, you can inform the business and add value."

With data volumes increasing exponentially, the need to manage data securely so it can be useful to the organisation becomes a pressing challenge for any CIO.

"The infrastructure becomes commoditised, more power is used, but it is finite. New technologies such as virtualisation can help, but there is a question over where the data should be," said Campbell.

This is pertinent to CIOs considering a managed service. "If data goes missing, the CIO can go to jail. I can't outsource that responsibility. I asked providers to put their name next to mine on a contract so we both go to jail if data goes missing - and I got zero signatures. It is an important principle that you can never not own data and you can't devolve that responsibility," he said.

A conservative approach toward managed services has evolved, with security considerations dictating decisions in favour of building your own datacentre. But a different approach is needed and the cloud can help, said Campbell.

"A perimeter approach towards protecting data assets is like having a moat and a castle. It's fine if the baddies are outside, and the goodies inside, but we all know that more data leakage comes from inside an organisation. We have got to go to a timelier, flexible model, away from the perimeter mentality. It is very difficult to achieve and mistakes may be made but, although we can't be perfect, we can learn and reap the rewards," he said.

A matter of trust

Cloud providers such as and Google believe that CIOs will trust them to look after their data.

"Microsoft know they have to go there, but there is no Active Directory in cyberspace - you have to accept that data will move across boundaries, and the legal standing of this is more circumspect in some countries," said Campbell.

On the question over whether to build or buy, much depends on scale, he said. "Large internal organisations have a good dynamic to have some redundancy and resilience to ensure stability," said Campbell.

However, thinking you have to justify your existence by having an internal datacentre is not necessary, and using managed services can free up CIO time to focus on delivering business value.

"There are global players that can provide and deliver. If your back office becomes someone else's front office by outsourcing it, then you can devote time on your own front office. The provider, however, must make the process as seamless as possible," said Campbell.

Apps to add value

The drive towards applications also makes the cloud and managed services more attractive so the CIO can focus on new applications that add business value. "The applications world is where we are going. CIOs become the business architects who ensure good design and facilitate change to help the business," he said.

TfL has over 30 data centres within the M25, and the need for transformation is unavoidable. However, Campbell, knows a gung-ho approach is no good.

"I can't do anything with those datacentres until I find out what's in there or I risk stopping the Northern Line. We have thousands of applications which need to be identified. Asset management makes the discussion about how we do consolidate easier. We can't just leave it, we must migrate and change," he said.

The plan is to focus on one big datacentre based outside London which allows other organisations, which are part of the Greater London Authority, to run shared services.

He believes the cloud can help CIOs provide necessary innovation and new services.

"We have delivered a cloud service, and companies that do that can profit. Look at Virgin Mobile, which uses T-Mobile's backbone network and provides a front-end differentiator to deliver customer service," said Campbell. The key to success for CIOs considering the cloud is to "find a reliable competent partner that can build that service out".

CIO Q&A; Ian Campbell, CIO of Transport for London

IT leaders at the roundtable debate quizzed Campbell, and this is what he said in response:

Q: Thirty datacentres within the M25 seems excessive?

Campbell: It is, but historically every single mode that we ran had its own set-up. As we are now doing shared services we needed to do a consolidation exercise. Sharing services and going into the G-Cloud is a natural progression.

Q: Many industries have areas of massive specialisation, and this applies to datacentres. Where is that specialisation going if our back office is going to become someone else's front office?

Campbell: In terms of cost, specialist areas must be simplified and provided in an integrated way. If a provider does not offer the floor tiles for the datacentre, then it is not providing a service. However, it is incumbent on all of us to show what we want and go to organisations that can provide an amalgamated service.

Q: What about building green datacentres?

Campbell: The supply chain is crucial to ensuring green computing. CIOs should specify the green credentials they expect to help raise the bar. With projects such as the government's G-Cloud programme, there's nothing more green than having 100,000 servers and being able to switch off 75,000. Great pockets of organisations are starting to look at utilising this and asking themselves whether they need their own datacentres.

Q: What if a decision to host in the cloud meets resistance?

Campbell: As IT professionals, it is not about whether you have a datacentre in the cloud, insource or outsource, it's about risk management and weighing up the pros and cons and what you believe you can influence. Stakeholder management is key to any decision. The London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is supportive of outsourcing as a principle, provided the outcome is better value for Londoners.

With that change in dynamic we can go towards managed services. Some companies worry about the trust issue when offshoring to countries such as China, as they are concerned that data may be copied when it goes back and forth, but other companies believe the cost savings outweigh the risk. It comes down to your perception of risk, opportunities and benefits, but you must take management with you, or if something goes wrong, they will take a couple of steps back.

Q: What about the understanding of organisations for what they're buying into with the cloud?

Campbell: I'm on a journey and it's the way we're going and where we need to go, but it's a slow road. But if the CIO can't keep the lights on then they will never get into projects and be able to bring about real change. We are all at different stages, but my philosophy is that I must take responsibility for governance and security, but I don't have to do everything in-house.

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