Interview: Centrelink's IT chief, John Wadeson

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Interview: Centrelink's IT chief, John Wadeson

Human Services considers data centre reform, cloud computing and skills shortages.

Several key whole-of-government IT initiatives are likely to converge in 2011, including a data centre consolidation plan, trials of cloud computing services and potentially some new shared service initiatives.

One of the biggest consumers of IT in Canberra - John Wadeson, deputy secretary of IT infrastructure at the Department of Human Services - spent some time with iTnews this week to discuss the year ahead.

Brett Winterford, iTnewsThe last time we spoke, Human Services was considering taking on some of the enterprise IT requirements of other Federal Agencies to take advantage of your scale. You have since swallowed the IT infrastructure of Veteran’s Affairs – approximately what volume of work and how many staff is involved?

John Wadeson, Human Services: We are still in the planning stage [with Veterans' Affairs]. The first real system moves will be in early April, when we will take control of Veterans’ mainframe environment. Other systems will flow progressively after that. We have already done a big test – to ensure we could download all of Veterans’ data into our mainframe system in a matter of hours. So we’re reasonably confident we’re right for April.

Nearly 40 Veterans staff will progressively move into this structure from March.

iTnews:  I have also read reports that other departments that put their hand up to outsource to Human Services were turned down or discouraged. What tends to be your rationale for what kind of work you take on and what you don’t?

John Wadeson: I don’t think it’s fair to say that we discourage anyone.

What tends to happen is that CIOs talk to us as part of seeking a round of views as to what they might do. If you look at the organisations we’ve integrated with so far, they all have very similar architecture – big mainframes with a lot of personal information, plus mid-range systems for things like security and online services.

I think bringing together such similar systems makes some sense. But we’ve never seen ourselves as going out there offering data centre space. We’re not out to run a system like the ones [The Department of] Foreign Affairs might use with all of their security needs and network around the world – we have no interest in that.

Keep in mind too that we don’t dictate what is done - if the Government says do this or that, we will do it.

iTnews: What are Human Services’ strengths from an IT perspective?

John Wadeson: For the reasons of the existence of Centrelink and to some extent Medicare, both of which were big IT operations, there is a fair body of technical expertise within Human Services.

The issue for other departments is – once upon a time you could have a little IT team that knew how it all worked. But now we are heading into a very connected, transactional world in which IT is much, much more complex. You can’t run it with a small team of people. You have got to have access to a broad range of fairly deep technical skills. So our team is a very big asset.

People have to accept that the web world creates a level of complexity that didn’t previously exist – and many organisations can’t afford to have the necessary expertise on tap.

It’s that strength – as well as the usual old issues around buying capacity, and having one set of contracts - that sets us apart.

iTnews: Has Human Services suffered from IT skills shortages in Canberra? Are you confident you can maintain the skills inhouse necessary to run your infrastructure as pressure is applied on wages?

John Wadeson: We have protected ourselves a little by doing development work in other cities like Brisbane and Adelaide as a bit of a buffer against the Canberra market. From time to time we might lose people, but as much as anything else they are retiring or seeking a lifestyle change.

My biggest worry in that space is actually about getting IT graduates. I do worry about the lack of people doing IT degrees.

iTnews: Were you approached by the Department of Health regarding their review of enterprise IT needs?

John Wadeson: Not in any formal sense, no. Organisations going down this route would generally talk to AGIMO first – who would then normally give departments advice.

iTnews: Was Health ever considered under consolidation plans? Is there a limit in size to how big an organisation you could take on?

John Wadeson: Human Services is already over one quarter of the public service IT group – it’s already a big group. And I do think the consolidation of Commonwealth IT facilities will increase over time. At the minute, where we have expertise – with departments with similar architectures – it makes sense [to consolidate]. There might be some value looking further – but there is a huge agenda ahead of us to integrate these things.

The Government CIOs talk amongst ourselves all the time. One thing we’ve talked about is sharing infrastructure – so it's not so much always about one agency taking over the maintenance of somebody else’s infrastructure, but rather about running workloads for other agencies at specific times.

So for example, the Tax Office has four spikes a year when business tax is paid – we [at Human Services] could potentially help get them through those periods of time with some of our data processing systems.

So conceptually, what we are discussing informally, is the creation of a private Government cloud. We could share our resources from time to time – because at Human Services we have peaks as well.

As virtualisation proceeds - and we are all getting better at it – it could help us divide workloads into more manageable pieces of work. That’s the kind of discussions happening at the moment.

iTnewsWhat is happening on the data centre front – are you expanding your presence at Canberra Data Centre?

John Wadeson: We are up to Stage Two now – getting ready to install mainframe computers and storage [arrays] in there.

iTnews: And more generally?

John Wadeson: Our plan is to take our seven data centres and aim to get that down to one primary data centre, with a second DR [disaster recovery] facility connected via an active-active capacity. I wouldn’t rule out running DR from somewhere outside of Canberra.

iTnews: When will this strategy enable you to decommission any old data centre space?

John Wadeson: We start in February pulling major systems out of Bruce.

iTnews: Have you had a chance to read the Department of Finance’s cloud computing draft strategy yet and did it hold much interest for you?

John Wadeson: I had a look at it. It’s a good, sensible approach and we can work with it.

We are building internal cloud-like systems, but inside this organisation there are a lot of people that would like to get going soon to test out what’s on offer elsewhere. Like many people we would like to put our toes in the water. There is a strong desire broadly across Human Services to get started.

The strategy got a good balance between what you might call caution and a sense of not ignoring this cloud development.  

You have got to view these things like this: we wouldn’t want to get there in one big hit. It is better to take small steps, learn the traps and realise the benefits.

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