CIO interview: Rob Ray, FA digital and IT director

Technology is a relatively new addition to the 139-year-old institution of the Football Association, says IT chief Rob Ray.

Technology is a relatively new addition to the 139-year-old institution of the Football Association, says Rob Ray, the FA’s group director of digital and IT. “There wasn’t much to speak of over 10 years ago,” he says.  

However, over the last decade the organisation’s websites and IT systems have evolved rapidly.  As the governing body of football in England, the FA has a centre and associated website for each of the country’s counties. The IT challenge for the Football Association is the breadth of what it now covers as an organisation. “The technology function is significant, we support 1,800 IT users in 60 locations,” says Ray, who joined the FA in May 2010, having worked as a business and technology executive for 20 years.

Key IT challenges include the consolidation of the core services to football, including all the websites; and the soon-to-be-opened £100m development of St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent, which will offer state-of-the-art training and coaching facilities.

St George's Park centre will become the FA's second major centre alongside Wembley, where operations are currently centred. The site will cover 330 acres with 12 football pitches surrounded by video technology. It will be the base for England's football teams and coaching and development teams. As well as a football training centre, the FA hopes it will be used by other national and international sports professionals.

Two internet pipes will go into the site, one direct from Wembley the other for the rest of the intranet. But because the site’s network will be shared between the centre and a 228-bedroom Hilton hotel, it will need to be divided for security purposes. “This sets the agenda for my team for the next decade. We will have two sites which means we can consolidate services and share equipment and it will bring resilience to services across the country. We have to maximise what we have as we don’t have the cash to spare.” The organisation hopes to take £1m out of its hosting costs through consolidation.

As part of the plans, the FA signed a five-year deal with BT Business and its IP-based network services arm  BT iNet, for it to become the organisation’s main service provider. 

“When looking at something like St George’s Park and what we need from a telecoms perspective, there are few people who we could go to for that."

Ray says the organisation may be looking to reduce the number of its IT partners.  “The opportunity is there for BT to expand. “It’s in our interests to maintain competition, we don’t want to have to manage too many relationships as we don’t have the resources, 10 would be too many and one is too few.”

Infrastructure rationalisation is the other big challenge, he says. “We have 300 plus servers, which we won’t have in 10 years’ time, two-thirds of those are already virtualised.  We need to move to an on-demand model in order to scale up and down services. Something like Cisco Unified Computing and Services (UCS) helps us do that in terms of cost, footprint, and flexibility.

“UCS is about having computer networks and storage in one environment and one management framework. We will gain a lot from that and look at how we expand capability and replace systems over the next five years,” he says.

Ray manages an IT team of 72, which oversees software development and web development for the organisation’s different websites. “We need to push more of our services online, such as online affiliation, so clubs are not always having to fill out paper forms. We have to respect their needs and many are pushing us to bring it online, but others won’t have resources and skills.

Nearly 70% of Ray’s budget is concerned with keeping the lights on “I have committed to taking at least 10% out of that, such as taking £1m out of hosting costs over the next five years. We are also looking at virtualising desktops and applications. We have a very flexible workforce and we need to be able to support all of them."

The organisation has around 90 systems which it wants to get down to 30. “This is a general goal rather than a specific statement - we have too many systems that have evolved over the last 10 years.  We are modernising and consolidating systems and I expect to see something in the order of a 66% reduction in the number of systems

Examples include Content Management System, payment gateways, football administration systems and CRM systems. “There are lots of little islands of systems,” he says.

Reducing system expenditure will mean more money can go to where it is most needed: nurturing the country’s next generation of football talent.  “Technology in terms of coaching and sports science is something that is at the front of everyone’s mind, we can already see that in play in the US and Australia and it’s becoming a major part of what do for sport in this country,” he says.

“The facilities here are going to be second to none.”



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