Asciano shifts to cloud in IT overhaul

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Asciano shifts to cloud in IT overhaul
A Pacific National train at sunset (courtesy: Asciano)

One year into major transformation project.

Rail freight and ports operator Asciano has kicked off transformative works that will see it move its entire ICT infrastructure to Fujitsu Australia.

The ASX-listed company, which combines Pacific National's rail operations, Patrick ports and stevedoring businesses, is a year into the transformation project, spearheaded by inaugural chief information officer Kelvin McGrath.

So far, Asciano has amalgamated five regional IT departments "into a single IT group with a single remit", McGrath told iTnews.

It has also upgraded its Oracle PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning system, consolidated wide and local area networks with Telstra and signed a five-year outsourcing deal with Fujitsu Australia.

"We are genuinely going to what is a cloud offering because we're shifting everything out of our data centre into Fujitsu's data centre," McGrath said.

He said Asciano could scale its consumption of ICT services up or down on a "close to real time" basis, noting it was "part of the attraction" of the on-demand model.

Asciano is readying the first system to be served out of Fujitsu's data centre: a "high-definition desktop" to be served to new thin clients, laptops, and Asciano's "strong iPad fleet", using Citrix desktop virtualisation software.

"We will have essentially a high definition desktop which will work on any device probably by about the 1st November, and by any device I mean any device," McGrath said.

"The prototype for that will be launched with 200 people."

McGrath declined to put a figure on the number of iPad devices on Asciano's corporate system. However, he said the Citrix rollout could be a precursor to a BYO device strategy.

"We haven't made a decision [on whether or not to allow BYOD yet]," he said.

The standard operating environment would be based on Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system.

Asciano is also standardising on a single email and messaging platform using Microsoft Exchange and Office products. It previously had a mixed environment of Lotus Notes and Exchange.

It plans to deploy "collaboration, document management and search capabilities across all ... information assets" and a communications platform "integrating desktop, voice, video and messaging", according to a statement.

McGrath said those capabilities would be delivered via Microsoft software hosted on Fujitsu's infrastructure, rather than through Office 365 on Microsoft's cloud.

A database consolidation project is also expected next year. Although McGrath did not name the platforms Asciano had settled on, Oracle and SQL Server would likely feature highly, given the firm's ERP and desktop IT architecture investments.

The company plans to decommission its existing data centres. No existing systems would be migrated onto Fujitsu infrastructure "as-is", McGrath said.

He said Asciano had classified its applications into three classes, based on whether they were to be upgraded, decommissioned or superseded by newer systems.

Service management stays in-house

Asciano will not outsource its service desk to Fujitsu, retaining problem, incident and change management capabilities in-house.

"Part of what I'm about is actually shaping our internal customer experience, and to do that I do not want to give away the service desk," McGrath said.

"I don't want to give away the customer facing parts of our clever people - functional analysts, people in field services.

"I can shape the customer experience better if that group of people is actually part of Asciano".

Asciano is in the process of defining "strong ITIL processes" that will govern the way that the internal service desk interacts with Fujitsu's own service desk, and service desk system.

"We've had to have our own service management tool, and Fujitsu has their own tool, and the processes are being defined as to exactly what happens in each of those," McGrath said.

All IT staff have also been trained in IT infrastructure library (ITIL) version three.

One reason that McGrath has kept service management capabilities in-house is to support initiatives being driven out of IT that contribute to Asciano's broader business innovation goals.

Asciano hopes to achieve supply-chain wide synergies for customers by integrating its rail and port operations. CEO John Mullen last year described Asciano's vision as the "holy grail" for the logistics industry.

The impending entrance of new players in Australia, such as Hutchison Ports, meant Asciano needed to "invest in equipment and technology... to innovate, so we an deliver things to Australian-based customers that our international competitors can't," McGrath said.

"Part of what I'm trying to do within what I'm calling an innovation ecosystem is actually creating space for people that are outside of IT to be able to innovate with technology.

"I want people to be able to access data in a secure manner, to be able to use the data and play with it, and even to use IT tools that maybe a traditional IT house would use.

"I want to give our people the space and training and support to use those [things] so they can fail fast or succeed quickly.

"But if I'm going to get people to innovate and do things that a normal IT department would struggle with, then I have to have some people inside of IT that can cope with that. That's what I want to spend time creating in our IT organisation."

Read on to page two to find out about Asciano's IT systems before the transformation.

Patrick and Pacific National shared little common ground in IT infrastructure going into IT transformation.

For example, one had a thin client strategy while the other used fat clients; one used Lotus Notes and the other Exchange.

"Even the way that rail and ports operate as a business, they operate differently," McGrath said.

"If you think about it, that's part of the attraction of what Asciano is - two industries that haven't really cooperated in the past but actually should be more cooperative than they are."

Where the two businesses did have common ground was that they were both ripe for transformation.

"What's really unusual here is both of the [sets of] systems were end-of-life and due for a big technology upgrade anyway," McGrath said.

Upon entering the business, McGrath's first step was to perform a control objectives for IT (COBIT) review of the various IT operations that sat under the Asciano umbrella.

"It's just an auditing tool which says what a good IT department should do," McGrath said.

"Like all auditing tools, it tells you what's wrong, but it doesn't tell you how to fix it. But from that baseline I targeted a number of areas which we should actually approach from the strategic and even the operational areas, and how we should fix those."

McGrath outlined his plans to Asciano's executive and board, finding support in the CEO's appetite for innovation through technology investment.

"It's a big call for the board to support that [type of program]," McGrath said.

"[CEO] John [Mullen's] talked about the vision of how he wants this company to work and that he needs technology to do that, and the board actually backed us to do that."

McGrath brought in people he'd worked with in the past to enact some of the required changes.

One thing the COBIT review turned up was that Asciano did not lack in-house capability, according to McGrath.

"Often times I read about people coming in[to a business] and they say, 'Oh, it was in a dreadful mess and the people were hopeless and I had to sack them all', and that sort of thing. This isn't like that," he said.

"There's some really good people here and we actually had an opportunity to join two good [IT] organisations together and we were able to do that.

"When you do that by starting and looking at what your strategic goals are and where the gaps are in your current capabilities are, you end up with a strong result."

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