CIO interview: Fashion house Paul Smith steers a hybrid path to IT excellence

Paul Smith's head of IT has developed a Microsoft hybrid cloud strategy to increase responsiveness and operational efficiency

Lee Bingham, who heads IT at Paul Smith, is using a suite of Microsoft server products as part of a hybrid cloud strategy to increase his department's responsiveness and operational efficiency.

Computer Weekly first spoke to Bingham a decade ago, when the fashion retailer was migrating from Windows 2000 to Windows Server 2003.

Ten years on and Bingham has taken the retailer on a journey to the Microsoft Azure cloud and beyond. He says Paul Smith has a long-standing enterprise agreement with Microsoft.

The Paul Smith IT department consists of 15 people who support the business on a global scale from its Nottingham head office. 

The centralised IT model works on a three-tier structure. Head office and the company’s UK-based datacentres are tier 1; branch offices in fashion capitals such as Paris, Milan, New York and Tokyo are tier 2; and the company’s 35 retail stores are tier 3.

Business approach to IT

The company has taken a 12-year journey with Microsoft, standardising its server infrastructure on Microsoft. "We now have a stable [environment] and over time we will have something to compare against," says Bingham.

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In the past, IT worked in a bespoke manner, but Bingham believes he now has in place industry-standard tools that, over time, will enable Paul Smith to benchmark the cost-effectiveness of delivering IT services in a hybrid architecture.

Along with using an internal scorecard to measure the value of IT to the business, he is looking at building a world-class IT department at Paul Smith. 

Operational efficiency is a high priority. By using Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 and Windows Server 2012, Bingham says it is able to save thousands of pounds per server instance. 

"Agility and continuous innovation are also key measures and I would like to be in a position to be proactive," he says.

The role of IT has changed over the past decade, says Bingham, and has become a way of delivering business strategy. 

"IT used to be a necessary evil. While everyone needed IT, it was a tactical service for Paul Smith’s business. Now I think there is a seismic shift and IT is regarded as a strategic service to grow the business," he says. "IT is now a crucial element of the business and a strategic supporter and enabler."

For instance, IT powers the acceleration of e-commerce, which has become a significant part of the business. Bingham says Paul Smith sees the web and e-commerce as a strategic channel.

Embracing consumer IT

Bingham embraces the bring your own device (BYOD) trend and regards it as positive to IT. "Historically, IT would have looked at maximising the best use of technology and driving value upwards back into the organisation," he says. 

IT used to be a necessary evil. Now there is a seismic shift and IT is regarded as a strategic service to grow the business

Lee Bingham, Paul Smith

In the past, he says, selling the value of social technology was difficult for organisations to grasp: "People did not understand the business benefits. IT can leverage consumerisation."

IT consumerisation enables IT to draw analogies from the way technology is used in people’s personal lives and apply these to business. Paul Smith has deployed Microsoft SharePoint, and its use has been grown by people in the business finding ways to collaborate through the software. 

The challenge for IT is in looking at how to take a trend like social networking and deliver it in a business context, adds Bingham.

There is high demand across the organisation for analytics, with the need for more information to help make informed decisions. Analytics is used to determine where to open new stores and the product sets to offer in these stores. 

But the true goal of analytics will be derived when it becomes possible for analytics to help the business make decisions that have not been thought about yet, Bingham says.

Hybrid cloud computing

Paul Smith’s cloud journey started after its migration to Windows Server 2008 R2, born out of a requirement for the business to build new architectures for private cloud. 

"We wanted to be more dynamic, flexible and save costs, and we wanted an SOA [service oriented architecture]. We started looking at a cloud model and the Microsoft products that were available," says Bingham.

Like many organisations, Paul Smith has been progressing from physical IT infrastructure to a virtual environment, which has allowed it to reduce costs. Its foray into Microsoft cloud computing began several years ago, following Microsoft’s acquisition of Frontbridge, an internet-based security service for email in 2005. Paul Smith uses Microsoft’s online message filtering service as part of the infrastructure to support Exchange email.

"The frequency with which requirements change in business means we need to deliver IT reliably and quickly. The cloud helps us manage costs and be more agile and responsive," he says. "For instance, we can push big data sets to the Azure cloud, so we now have much more choice where we can deliver services."

Bingham admits he would like to be in a position where Paul Smith’s SOA and hardware can support future business strategies: "We want to be able to provision services from a particular environment, whether it is Azure or a local platform, flexibly and quickly." This requires separating the application from the infrastructure.

Bingham is using Microsoft System Center Orchestrator for least-cost routing of cloud workloads. System Center Orchestrator is used to determine the most cost-effective place to deliver an IT service by comparing the cost of running the workload locally, on Azure or on Amazon Web Services, measuring the price of the storage and computing required by the workload.

Service Manager in System Center 2012 is used by the business to create a request a virtual machine (VM). Orchestrator then works out where best to deploy the VM.

Paul Smith’s current dual datacentre infrastructure comprises a full Microsoft private cloud using Windows Server 2012 R2. The core infrastructure is based on standard HP servers and SAN. This is used for test, development and production environments. Bingham says Microsoft’s Azure cloud is used for storage and backup of virtual machines.

Bingham’s goal for 2014 is to maximise the hybrid cloud architecture the company runs: "We want to develop more services and feed out to the web and e-commerce [operations]." 

He will also be looking at how Paul Smith can maximise the value of its Microsoft licensing agreement. "We now have a Microsoft platform that can consume on a rolling basis," he says.

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