Interview: Mark Bramwell, head of IT, Wellcome Trust

The man in charge for the IT supporting the world's second largest medical research charity talks exclusively to Computer Weekly about his transformation strategy.

The man in charge for the IT supporting the world's second largest medical research charity talks exclusively to Computer Weekly about his transformation strategy.

With £14bn of funds under management, the Wellcome Trust is the world's biggest charity of its kind - surpassed only by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - so the IT requirements are just as complex as in any other FTSE100 organisation.

The technology function and its strategy needed to be revisited and Mark Bramwell, head of IT at the charity, devised a three-year plan to tackle the challenges, which is now in its second year.

The plan saw the organisation moving "back to basics", assessing competences and what needed to be done in order to improve. According to Bramwell, the work that has been carried out already speaks for itself.

"The first year was very busy and successful - we committed to deliver 27 projects, but actually delivered 39 by the end of last year," he said.

"Big spending decisions still get challenged, but we have been able to demonstrate that we can manage our IT spend very well. We also have a much more open relationship [with the business], where my recommendations are understood.

"The fact that we are much more closely aligned with the rest of the business and the board means that IT is held in much higher esteem and is much more credible and trusted, but all the confidence is built on results."

Supplier management focus

Bramwell sought to strengthen the team's existing capabilities and fill skills gaps, so there have been some changes in the way the department is organised.

The areas of development, customer support and operations are now rationalised into two sections: development works on the delivery of new projects, while the other encompasses IT helpdesk, infrastructure and operational support.

An IT procurement manager has also been hired as the Wellcome Trust seeks to bring in tighter service level agreements while ensuring value for money paid to third-parties.

"[Appointing an IT procurement specialist] was out of recognising that procurement is a very generalist discipline, whereas IT procurement is very specialist due to the details around technical contracts. Having someone with that expertise also helps us enforcing performance management and financial negotiation," said Bramwell.

Crucial systems gone virtual

Before kicking off the project agenda, Bramwell's team ran an audit of the IT estate to understand details such as the enterprise architecture, points of risk in terms of age of infrastructure, as well as database capacity and load.

The evaluation then informed the virtualisation strategy, which is a core part of the new IT plan. The Wellcome Trust has already reduced the its server fleet of 260 boxes by a third and the project, which could be accelerated to complete in an 18-month or two-year timeframe if necessary - and if budget is made available - could shrink the number of physical servers down to 50.

The charity, which is running HP Blade servers with VMware software, decided to go head-on into migrating critical systems onto the virtual environment, such as its investments and grants management platforms as well as finance systems.

"Because of product lifecycle reasons and because virtualisation was new to us, we decided to go slow and steady into it, but those systems needed to be upgraded. So our first virtualised systems were probably the most business-critical ones, rather than the less risky ones, but luckily it has gone exceptionally well," said Bramwell.

"The main benefit of virtualising those critical systems and demonstrating increased service availability is that everyone now wants their applications virtualised, so we are partway through the internal 'hearts-and-minds' exercise," he said.

However, some applications will continue to run on the Wellcome Trust's Sun physical servers, such as applications underpinning library services other legacy applications that cannot be moved due to compatibility.

Most core applications at the charity have been revamped during the first year of Bramwell's new strategy, including its finance and grants management systems, now run on Microsoft SQL Server 2008 databases. The investment system, which was running on Visual Basic, has been upgraded to .Net.

The Wellcome Trust is using the software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach for some of its systems, such as reporting, and there is a chance SaaS will be extended for new projects or platforms that are eligible for replacement or review.

"We always ask the suppliers if they can host systems. The reason for exploring that model is not just down to cost of ownership, but from a disaster recovery perspective having SaaS opens up more opportunities for business continuity," said Bramwell.

The Wellcome Trust considered using cloud-based services such as Google Apps, but Bramwell said that would take a back seat for now, mainly due to storage constraints.

"We are storage vendors' best friend, as we do not delete anything. Running e-mail out of the cloud - such as in the Microsoft offering - would only give us 12 months' worth of storage. That just would not be viable for us. Clearly you can use archiving facilities, but that is just not cost-effective for us," said Bramwell.

Connectivity challenges

Bramwell's strategy also aims to instil discipline around desktop management and ensure equipment is standardised and tested for compatibility. Equally, the software licensing position is clearer and accountability for desktops lies in a smaller group.

In the second year of the IT transformation, the charity will be exploring options such as VDI and thin-clients to extend the approach to virtualisation that is already in place across the server environment.

"We are also aware that the consummerisation of IT means that applications get delivered less to a desktop and more to a mobile device. Mobility is increasingly becoming a challenge as people spend more time out of the office and want to be connected wherever they are in the world," said Bramwell.

"We are talking to our partners about how we can do that in our research centres overseas as well as the head office and see how far we can stretch Blackberries and handle the increase in growth of laptops," he said.

"The position we would like to get to in five to 10 years time is one where connectivity to the office is device-agnostic, we can provide a secure channel that would allow people to do business anywhere, regardless of the device. We would provide recommended a set of corporate hardware, but if you want to use your own device because we have secure connectivity, that's up to you."

Given that the charity operates from countries that are far apart, such as Thailand and Kenya, as well as other remote locations, maintaining and supporting connectivity is a challenge, particularly in areas where infrastructure is precarious.

"One of the dilemmas of the changing face of IT is helping developing countries that sometimes don't have the appropriate communication fabric to keep apace as applications and interfaces become more web-enabled," said Bramwell.

The charity will be looking to upgrade its core network, which is provided by Cisco, as part of the transformation. According to Bramwell, the supplier selection will go through the normal channels, but he would need a "very compelling reason" to change supplier, as the current incumbent's services "do what it says on the tin".

Improving data quality

The Wellcome Trust is about to pilot a data warehousing initiative, to provide enhanced grants information to the business. The system, which runs on a Microsoft stack using Sharepoint and Analysis Services, will go live in September.

"This will be a major step change for the Trust, as we never had consolidated information in one place. It is going to be a technological, cultural and educational proof of concept," said Bramwell.

"I come from a retail background where good management of information is crucial to decision making, so I am positive and confident that this project will bring real benefits to the Trust," he said.

The Wellcome Trust's total IT spend is approximately £7m and the operational part of it has been reduced in the last year, but that is something the IT chief has initiated himself.

"[The budget reduction] is something I orchestrated with my eyes open; it is not something that was inflicted on me. It sounds like a throw-away statement, but every penny I save goes back into supporting the trust's main aim, which is medical research and that is always in the front of our minds."

Mark Bramwell: leaving a life in retail behind

Mark Bramwell joined the Wellcome Trust in 2008 after working in various senior IT positions at retailer WHSmith. Since retail was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the global recession, he considers the timing for the move was right.

"I learnt a lot of disciplines during my years in that sector that I have been able to apply to my job here and I would always openly share that retail gave me a very good grounding, but I don't miss the challenges of retail," said Bramwell.

Bramwell added that the prestige of working for such a prominent charity is one of the main pluses of work at the Wellcome Trust, where the arrangement is "very different to the motivations of commercial organisations and shareholders."

"I look at my job and wonder where else I could be working as a head of IT at a FTSE100-equivalent organisation that still has a commitment to IT investment, where my job is respected and I still have an opportunity to show how we can improve further by using technology," he said.

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