Dr Peter Lawrence, the newly appointed CIO at the Department of Defence, admits he has “one of the larger and more complex CIO roles in Australia at the moment.”
But it’s a role he should relish given he has plenty of experience managing IT operations at large enterprises such as the ANZ Bank, Origin Energy and Royal Dutch Shell.
What is different, however, is the requirement for Lawrence and a 2000-person IT team at Defence – the largest he has worked with – to be reactive and flexible enough to support the operational needs of the Australian Defence Force wherever and whenever it decides to deploy forces.
“Because it [Defence] is in Australia’s national interests, it brings a slightly different business focus to it,” he says.
“We have to make sure things work and they work first time – [such as] satellite communications and other things that we need to do in those operational theatres – because the forces are operating in those areas rely on those things to do what they have to do. It gives you a sharp need to be able to get it right... it’s not optional.”
Perhaps one of Dr Lawrence’s biggest challenges will be the need to solve Defence’s information management issues that result from massive amounts of data that is generated by multiple systems used on the battlefield.
According to Dr Lawrence, several Defence projects are helping to address this problem. Firstly, Defence’s Terrestrial Communications initiative is providing a more modern, scalable domestic voice and data network, supporting 100,000 users at more than 330 sites in Australia and enabling Defence to run 10Gbps links into its largest bases.
The current phase 3 of this project – announced last November – enables users to connect to Defence networks at any time, including wirelessly and provide desktop-to-desktop video conferencing on the Defence Restricted Network and the Defence Secret Network.
“We are [rolling out] and the centralised processing tenders in the market, which follows the data centre migrations, is all about delivering more [compute and storage] capacity for us in a more centralised way.”
In November, Defence shifted its large systems running 125 core applications from a data centre in Canberra to a new primary data centre in Sydney, as part of its data refresh project, which will be completed this month.
Overall, Defence is reducing its number of computer rooms from 280 to 10, which along with the next-generation desktop project will save the department around $400 million.
“[This] moves us into more of a private cloud, virtualized environment, [which provides] more flexibility and the ability to scale [capacity] up faster than we do today,” says Dr Lawrence.
“Within the broader single information environment, standardising that and some of the products and layers that sit on top of it will allow us to manage things more simply."
“So we can scale out our document repository system objective, which will allow us to handle the data volumes. A slightly longer-term challenge for Defence is how [we] use information in a better way,” he says.
Defence recently embarked on a software refresh project, to replace thousands of legacy applications with new database and middleware products to reduce duplication of applications and effort required to manage them.
“We took a PeopleSoft system and to a large extent, we customised it beyond belief,” says Dr Lawrence.
“The project we are on at the moment is all about bringing a number of [PeopleSoft HR] systems onto one off-the-shelf version of PeopleSoft with minimal, if any customisation.
“That will allow us to consolidate the number of Oracle databases we have around the place in the PeopleSoft space, let alone other opportunities that come along after that.”
Mobile technology on the battlefield
Although Defence has completed a successful pilot to equip soldiers with smartphones, this initiative was “very much in the predictive stage” and there are no plans to deploy these devices on the battlefield, says Dr Lawrence.
“The whole issue of smartphones in Defence is one of those where there is certainly growing demand but we haven’t resolved how we are going to do it yet.
"While our push is to provide more mobile capability both to the serving part of Defence and to the rest of Defence – we have some ways of doing that now – if you look over the next few years, that demand will increase and it’s one of those problems we are going to have to solve.
“As with most organisations, we have done really small-scale pilots, but it’s by no mean anything you would comprehensively call a BYOD [bring-your-own-device] policy – it’s not at that stage.
“We know we can do certain things, meet some of our security requirements for some of the devices, but in no way does it need to be large-scale yet. Just by the nature of some of what [information] that we’d be transmitting, we’ve got to be sure that it’s very secure and can’t be intercepted.”
In part two of this interview, to be published Tuesday, Dr Lawrence outlines his views on the how the modern CIO’s role is changing and the effect of trends such as social media.
Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter: @ByronConnolly