CIO interview: Mark Bramwell, head of IT, The Wellcome Trust

As The Wellcome Trust enters year two of a five-year IT strategy, head of IT Mark Bramwell is preparing to lead some high-profile projects

As The Wellcome Trust enters year two of its five-year IT strategy, head of IT Mark Bramwell is preparing to lead some of the highest-profile projects since he joined the charity.

The Trust is one of the world’s largest medical research charities, with an endowment of £13.9bn. It needed a revamp of its technology to support new demands – such as the growth of the Wellcome Library’s digitised archive; the need for better core systems and improvements for users – so the IT team is busy juggling several crucial projects.

While last year was focused on some of the foundations of IT – such as putting a brand new network in place and relocating disaster recovery services – the next 12-18 months will see every piece of core infrastructure replaced.

“Our work last year was mostly invisible to the Welcome Trust staff, but this year we will be doing tangible things that will have an obvious benefit,” Bramwell told Computer Weekly. "New PCs, new laptops, smarter ways of working – every year is important, but this year is critically important, as everything we do will be very visible to all our colleagues."

Storage upgrade

The first and largest area of focus is replacement of the charity’s storage environment. The Trust’s data volumes are growing exponentially, partly driven by its digital initiative for the Wellcome Library, which includes scanning 80,000 print volumes, 20,000 items of clinical ephemera, manuscripts, images and a myriad of other items on the history and progress of medicine.

So far, 1.5 million items have been digitised and the organisation already handles 2Pb of data. The expectation is the size of that archive will grow even more in the next few months, so a new storage set-up was urgently needed.

To that end, the charity will be ending its five-year contract with Oracle following a competitive tender and the previous Pillar storage system will be replaced. The tendering process included most major suppliers, such as Dell, HP, EMC and NetApp, as well as the incumbent Oracle. The winning bidder is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. 

“We needed a cost-effective, tiered storage offering that had a high degree of resilience and availability to support our daily operations but also support and hold vast amounts of archived static data. So not paying a premium to store our archive while getting flexibility was key,” Bramwell says.

“The main goal was to get a triangulated solution to protect our operations. We will be implementing the system across three sites and synchronously and asynchronously replicate data across those locations." 

According to Bramwell, the contract with Oracle had to end because the supplier did not offer a product that met the Trust’s storage needs.

We are working to move from service provider to a valued business partner. IT is now working a lot more collaboratively with other areas, taking part in projects from the start. Cultural change is hard to drive and takes a long time

Mark Bramwell, Wellcome Trust

“Our previous partnership was with Pillar [a storage supplier acquired by Oracle in 2011] and Oracle’s offering at this stage didn’t give us a tiered model. So we would be putting vast amounts of archived data onto exactly the same type of disk and cost as our primary operational data – and that wasn’t going to be cost-effective for us,” Bramwell says.

The storage project at The Wellcome Trust also involves other suppliers that look after different aspects of digital library management, from physical bureau services and creation of digital objects to systems that provide metadata management and power the web delivery.

Would it be an option to consolidate all those processes and adopt a single system? According to Bramwell, it is not a simple task.

“As it stands at the moment, there is no one-stop shop that could provide those sorts of systems. The tools available in terms of library systems are quite niche and so are the skills, which brings a unique set of challenges,” he says.

“I know that Autonomy [HP] is trying to play big in that space, but that comes at a premium too."

The new storage set-up, which should be in place by early May, is all physical, but one of the options that will be looked into as the Wellcome Library grows is using infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

“One thing we don’t want to happen is to be growing petabytes and petabytes of data in our own datacentre,” says Bramwell.

Currently, the Trust operates three datacentres - two in Euston Road in London and a disaster recovery site at its research facility in Cambridge. The facilities are co-sourced, and managed during business hours by Bramwell’s team, with Selection Services doing out-of-hours monitoring and running of the datacentres.

According to Bramwell, the virtualisation strategy he has driven since joining the Trust is now paying off. The charity has about 480 virtual machines, 50 physical boxes and 1,400 databases running on them, compared with 300 physical servers that were in place three years ago.

“Our computer room now has dozens of empty racks. When I became head of IT, you couldn’t even get into the datacentre because of physical servers,” he says.

Read more about The Wellcome Trust's IT plans

All change

This year, users at The Wellcome Trust will notice a difference in the technology they use daily, as the IT team advances with a Windows 7 upgrade and replacing about 1,100 PCs, 250 laptops and 80 Apple computers this year, plus 275 applications that will be migrated to the new operational system in a project that should be completed in April.

Bramwell has already introduced the Trust to the world of cloud computing in 2011 by moving two legacy IT service management systems (ITSM) to a cloud-based alternative – which has cut £600,000 from annual costs and improved service levels. But cloud offerings such as Microsoft's Office 365 didn’t make economic or practical sense for the charity, so a decision was made to stick with Office 2010 for now.

“We are not a multi-site organisation, so some of the benefits you would get [with Office 365] such as instant messaging are less relevant to us. Also, our IT team is very lean, so we wouldn’t necessarily get savings from the cloud offering versus our cost of support and maintenance today,” Bramwell says.

“We could review this in future, for questions such as how to better connect with our overseas programmes. Then, Office 365 – subject to connectivity and broadband – may be a viable option for us,” he says.

But there were other reasons to not pick Microsoft’s cloud software: “When we looked at it there were some limits in the amount of storage you could have, the size of email accounts they would support, plus integration with Blackberry Enterprise Server was not part of the offering. That seems to have changed now, but these were some of the reasons why we discarded it as an option.”

Looking forward

After the storage roll-out is out of the way, Bramwell’s team will be defining the roadmap for core applications. This will include making choices about the replacement of its bespoke grants management system, e-Grants, a web-based platform running on AS400.  The most likely route here is a move to packaged applications.

“What we have at the moment is very bespoke and legacy, and now we are looking into more recognised off-the-shelf solutions. There are a lot of mature options in the market and products like Microsoft SharePoint and Dynamics offer a lot more flexibility than they did in the past,” he says.

The request for information for the new system is being drafted and governance and processes for the new system defined, so the Trust will be going to market soon. There is also a possibility that options provided by suppliers based outside the UK will be considered.

“We are being very careful to not be closed in our thinking – what matters most is finding a good system that supports our goals. It is a mission-critical system, after all,” he says.

When Bramwell joined the Trust more than six years ago, he had the goal of changing how the IT department was perceived by its business peers. Has that aim been accomplished?

“I have a very open dialogue with the executive board, which continues to be very supportive of IT. In tough economic times, I have recently had support to grow my team and deliver more capability, which is a fantastic endorsement,” he says.

“We are working to move from service provider to a valued business partner. IT is now working a lot more collaboratively with other areas, taking part in projects from the start. Cultural change is hard to drive and takes a long time, but in year two of a five-year strategy, the signs of progress are definitely there."

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