Revealed: NBN Co's IT strategy

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Revealed: NBN Co's IT strategy

NBN Co CIO Claire Rawlins talks cloud, ITIL and 'generic IT'.

NBN Co has adopted a ‘buy over build’ approach to IT, choosing to adopt cloud computing services and commercial off-the-shelf software rather than develop its own applications.

Today, iTnews brings readers an exclusive download from the brains of NBN Co’s IT team, with an interview featuring:

  • Claire Rawlins, CIO of NBN Co
  • Bill Barnett, GM of enterprise architecture at NBN Co
  • Gordon McMillan, head of IT infrastructure at NBN Co
  • Edwin Butler, head of operations and applications support at NBN Co

Our interview with the leaders of NBN Co's IT team covered many topical areas in information technology circles – but we have chosen to focus on three specific themes over the coming pages.

  • On page two, read about NBN Co’s approach to cloud computing.
  • On page three, read why NBN Co prefers to deploy commercial-off-the-shelf software.
  • On page four, read about NBN Co’s focus on ITIL and other IT standards.

In brief: NBN Co's IT

  • Led by Claire Rawlins, NBN Co’s IT team looks after the technology needs of 700 staff.
  • NBN Co's corporate IT operates from data centres in Sydney and Brisbane.
  • The team prefers commercial off-the-shelf software over developing its own applications.
  • NBN Co uses Oracle software for Project Management, ERP, database and CRM.
  • The company prefers to consume software as-a-service when available, and when data can be held locally.
  • NBN Co expects service levels of five nines from SaaS suppliers.
  • This week, NBN Co will start using Oracle CRM on-Demand from a Sydney data centre, has also embraced a hosted project management system from Atlassian for its developers and hosted IVR system from IPscape in its call centre.
  • The company chooses to keep email and other data-heavy apps in-house, as well as development of its intranet portal.
  • The team designs IT systems to the ITIL 3 standard
  • NBN Co runs a fleet of Windows 7 PCs in-house, uses Citrix XenApp for application deployment, and won’t be going down the BYO Computing path any time soon.
  • The company has deployed Cisco’s UCS hardware platform to run internal applications, running VMware server virtualisation.
  • NBN Co contracted IBM for systems integration under an three-year deal

Read on for more...

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Saving taxpayer dollars

NBN Co, the company building Australia's next generation national broadband network, is not your average start-up.

While NBN Co has no shortage of funds coming through from the Federal Government, the company's management must be sensitive to the political fallout that would ensue from cost blowouts on IT projects.

With that in mind, the company builds few applications in-house.

NBN Co CIO Claire Rawlins told iTnews that more than 90 percent of NBN Co’s applications are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies.

The company's 700-odd staff use the Windows 7 operating system, Microsoft’s Office suite, and Oracle enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management software.

NBN Co has also contracted IBM to integrate operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS) from various software providers, in order to provide access seekers with an end-to-end view of the network.

Remember to sign up to our CIO Strategies bulletin for the strategic thinking to help CIOs and IT managers plan, evaluate and execute IT initiatives.
As a government-owned company, enterprise architecture head Bill Barnett said NBN Co’s focus was on “efficient use of taxpayer money”.

“I would say that we’re focused on buying everything we can, and building is really a last resort,” he told iTnews.

“It’s a question of are we in the business to be building a lot of applications, or does it make more sense for us to select some COTS applications and use low-cost, high-quality external partners to get them delivered.”

Rawlins said NBN Co strived for out-of-the-box functionality wherever possible. In-house development was undertaken only where security, flexibility and speed-to-market were significant concerns.

“We only have a few select systems done in-house,” she said. “We’ve retained our portal (online services) capability in-house because we see that as a way to differentiate our product offerings.

“Obviously we retain architectural control in-house, security in-house, and our core operations in-house.”

Barnett said NBN Co’s business and functions were “intentionally straightforward”, despite its unique position as a wholesale-only, open-access telecommunications service provider.

Being a $36 billion start-up company also allowed NBN Co to design processes around “leading products”, without being encumbered by legacy tools, he said.

“In a normal company you have to deal with all these legacy businesses processes and practices that you have to figure out how to customise around,” Barnett explained.

“We’ve had the luxury of saying: let’s pick some leading products in the market and let’s align our business around those, rather than the other way around.”

Read on for a discussion of NBN Co's use of cloud computing...

Leading the way on cloud computing

NBN Co seeks to be an aggressive adopter of cloud computing, primarily for scalability and speed to market, but to exploit the capabilities of the network it is building.

The company has chosen SaaS solutions hosted on Australian soil to date.

NBN Co product development head Jim Hassell described the cloud as one of the network builder’s major propositions for businesses at Salesforce.com’s customer conference last week.

Speaking with iTnews after his keynote speech, Hassell said NBN Co often considered cloud solutions so as to reduce time spent building software, but faced the usual data sovereignty concerns.

CIO Claire Rawlins said all of NBN Co’s “business critical data” was stored in Australia.

“I think using the cloud is a very positive message,” Rawlins told iTnews, highlighting flexibility, cost, and a reduced capital expenditure as benefits.

“That’s the whole point of what we’re doing, in terms of NBN as an enabler for the digital, networked economy.

“I think we’re sort of eating our own dog food, or drinking our own champagne as I prefer to say.”

This week,  NBN Co’s sales team of 50 will begin using Oracle on-Demand customer relationship management software, alongside an Oracle E-Business ERP suite, deployed last year.

The hosted CRM will be delivered from a partner’s data centre in Sydney.

IT staff also use JIRA bug tracking and project management tools from Sydney start-up Atlassian, and a cloud-based interactive voice response (IVR) service from contact centre service provider IPscape.

NBN Co typically required five nines of availability, Rawlins said, which meant its service providers were only allowed 5.26 minutes of downtime per year.

While cloud e-mail services by Google and Microsoft have gained traction in some Australian enterprises, these options haven't been embraced by the network builder as the services are hosted offshore.

Cloud computing giants Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure currently serve the Asia-Pacific region from facilities in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Salesforce.com, which hosted some 1,300 delegates in Sydney last week, has data centres in the US and Singapore. It has offered no concrete plans to back up promises of a local facility.

While Hassell expected vendors to be drawn to Australia’s land availability and customer base, he said it would be up to those vendors and regulators to discuss data sovereignty and location issues.

Enterprise architecture general manager Barnett agreed that the network builder was “not focused on broader innovation topics” like attracting cloud service providers to Australia.

“We’ve got a pretty tight focus on getting the infrastructure built out and providing the core network services,” he said, “but it obviously would be a good outcome if NBN Co enabled [the build of local data centres] to happen faster.”

When built, NBN Co’s IT infrastructure head Gordon McMillan expected the NBN to provide enough bandwidth to allow Australian businesses to seamlessly consume cloud applications over the wire.

Read on for more...

Embracing standards

Standardisation plays a big role in NBN Co’s processes, with CIO Claire Rawlins aiming for “maximum re-use” of technologies.

The company has largely been focused on ITIL version 3 for key service management processes, and TM Forum guidelines for the network build.

TM Forum called for the use of standard, ‘generic blocks’ of platforms and business services that could be re-used in various systems to reduce operational cost and improve business agility.

“Rather than in classic organisations, where you get siloed views and duplicate systems, we are absolutely binary in getting maximum reuse through a capability-based model,” Rawlins told iTnews.

“We’ve used industry standards and broken our platforms down into capabilities. Each of those capabilities is mapped to processes, and then as new requirements come up, the architecture team looks at what capabilities and map what underpinning systems can be reused.”

Rawlins described standardisation and automation as the two design tenets underpinning NBN Co’s IT, which revolved around four end-to-end value streams:

  • lead to cash
  • trouble to resolve
  • plan to pay; and
  • concept to market.

Appointed “champions” within NBN Co promote standard technologies and processes within the company, while an architecture team maps any new requirements against the capabilities of existing, standard systems.

Enterprise architecture head Barnett said NBN Co made sure to use standards and commoditised equipment in its virtual data centres.

Last year, the company inked a $9.5 million deal for use of VMware, Cisco and EMC technology in its Sydney and Brisbane data centres.

“One of the advantages that we have in being a start-up is we don’t have this giant legacy portfolio of conflicting and niche technologies,” Barnett said.

“We have a very strong stance around a standard operating environment, standard applications, standard suites ... that has enormous cost impacts in terms of provisioning and deprovisioning compute resource as and when you need it, as opposed to the long life cycles that you usually have on physical data centre infrastructure.”

While there was no absolute guarantee that solutions would be future-proof, IT infrastructure head McMillan expected the commodity compute route to stave off any need for a total infrastructure refresh.

Rawlins added that NBN Co had chosen products that were backed by big companies with deep pockets.

“One of the things that’s really important for us as technologists is that ultimately, the business has to be a low-cost service provider,” she said.

“That’s driving two things for us: high process standardisation, and a high level of automation.”

Brett Winterford contributed to this story.

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