CIO interview: VMware's Tony Scott re-engineers IT as a service

Agility is only as effective as the slowest step. At VMware, CIO Tony Scott has his sights set on tackling this

Agility is only as effective as the slowest step. At VMware, CIO Tony Scott has his sights set on tackling this.

Scott, who has been CIO at VMware for 18 months, is re-engineering the IT function.

People often talk about IT as a service, but in those organisations requiring an on-premise application it could take months to prepare, according to Scott.

The steps involved in buying the software and hardware, waiting for all the bits to arrive, configuring the hardware and then installing the software ready for the user is complex, he adds.

Prior to VMware, Scott worked at Microsoft for five-and-a-half years, and Walt Disney before that. 

Demonstrating VMware technology in action

Along with running IT, Scott's role at VMware is customer facing. When customers visit VMware’s head office in Palo Alto, they often ask to see how the IT department deploys VMware’s technology.

His team gets the opportunity to deploy new VMware technology in a real-world scenario across the company’s campus first. So people are naturally interested in how well it works, and in gaining deployment tips, Scott says.

I am flipping IT to ensure it does not get in the way of the business

Tony Scott, VMware

The company is clearly heavily virtualised. Software-defined infrastructure is the approach Scott and the IT team is taking.  

"Disney went from films being shot on Kodak, editing film and shipping celluloid canisters around the world, to digital and distributing movies over a network," he says. And just as digital has revolutionised the movie industry, Scott says with software-defined everything, businesses can be faster and more cost-effective than ever before.

That said, even VMware’s internal IT function can get tied up in virtualisation licensing issues. Like many organisations, VMware had a struggle virtualising Oracle, Scott recalls. 

"When I got to VMware, we were 99% virtualised, but I could not virtualise Oracle RAC [real application cluster]," he says.

Can virtualisation fix everything?

In Scott's experience, virtualisation only goes so far. 

"You can spin up a VM [virtual machine] in a matter of minutes, but to configure a complete development and test environment with code repositories used to take us days," he says. 

In comparison, it can now be done in 24 hours, he adds. How? Scott describes what IT needs to achieve as analogous to a tenant manager tasked with looking after several identical offices, each with tenants who operate in totally different sectors. While the basic infrastructure – as in the lifts and washrooms in the building – are identical, each business has unique requirements of the office space.

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From an IT perspective, he says: "Tenant operations needs to know what each virtual infrastructure does – one application may need more disc space, another may require more network bandwidth."

In the past, IT would have been organised by areas of specialism. "I am flipping IT to ensure it does not get in the way of the business," says Scott. 

VMware describes the shift as "IT at the speed of business". For Scott, the shift represents more than a smart way to provide templates for virtual workloads. Arguably, this rethink of IT is a precursor to software-defined everything. 

While VMware's technology is designed to work across a wide range of workloads, he says one size does not fit all. "We will see a range of capabilities to tailor virtual workloads."

Making infrastructure business friendly

In the past, business people have scoffed when the IT industry has tried to sell the benefits of an updated server, storage or network in terms of absolute business value. 

Where IT was seen to affect the business was in its ability to hamper progress. IT people needed to put a cap on storage, put limits on the network and often the benefits of new servers were not fully realised.

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Far from being an enabler, IT was becoming a barrier. Often systems specified by the business would take too long to deploy.

Scott believes the ability to roll out and deploy complete IT environments rapidly will make IT infrastructure increasingly relevant to business. 

"In large-scale web environments you will have the ability to do A/B testing on different versions of the website, give half the customers the old site and half the new site and measure which one customers prefer," he says.

Scott uses the analogy of a petri dish in a lab to describe how an agile IT infrastructure enables the business to test multiple hypotheses simultaneously. "Rather than run a monolithic application, you have a petri dish to make your business better. You can try something, experiment and quickly scale out or fail fast," he adds.

Business people are now able to buy applications themselves via cloud subscriptions. But in spite of the popularity of cloud computing, Scott says putting data in the cloud is not where you want it, unless the data can be collected, analysed and distributed across a wide area network [WAN] with a single cloud provider.

"Network costs are high. We are seeing people ship data on discs rather than transfer data over a WAN. Cloud computing moves IT infrastructure complexity from within your datacentre to the edge, where it is a lot more expensive," he says.

But while he may not be a big fan of cloud computing, Scott likes to take his Cirrus single-engine aircraft into the clouds. When asked why he chose it, Scott says he was taken by the aircraft’s parachute and its state-of-the art avionics which are, arguably, as advanced as the cockpit in a Boeing 777.

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