Taming the beast: IT infrastructure management today

At the other extreme is British Telecom. With an annual turnover of some $80 billion, it is one of the largest communications providers in the world, employing 110,000 people, most of whom use computers. IT departments alone account for 6000 staff.

IT usage is intense, covering customer relationship management, billing, network management, financial, payroll, HR, procurement, logistics and finally a range of Internet activities including ISP services. The mainstay is the mainframe (IBM-compatible) but recent systems are nearly all Unix-based (Sun, IBM, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard) and there is some use of NT, especially for Internet and e-mail services.

According to David Quinn, British Telecom's recently retired head of core services design and architecture, the key challenge his team faced in planning infrastructure strategy was to find the right balance between cost, time-to-market and quality.

"The first two," he says, "imply quick delivery of systems that are as flexible as possible. However, availability at the 99.9 per cent-plus level is essential. Hastily produced systems can often be flaky and lack robustness, adversely affecting availability. And flexibility, which needs careful design, can be compromised by fast development, with implications for total cost of ownership.

"On the other hand," he notes, "failure to get to the market early may lead to loss of that market. There is a constant pressure to balance these drivers."

"Linking disparate systems from different suppliers is very difficult and there are few adequate tools to help."

Over at National Foods, CIO Cathy Bibby agrees. "Integration of disparate systems, services and vendors" is one of her greatest headaches. Her brief at the 1800-strong manufacturer includes both hardware and application services. It means that, as well as providing robust and reliable IT services, she must devote time to planning ahead for growth and change: "keeping one eye on the future needs of the corporation (almost trying to second-guess the business) in terms of solutions implemented".

Another issue, she says, is "gaining business approval for 'backroom' IT activities and tools".

Liquid, not solid, refreshments are the business of Lion Nathan. The Sydney-based company serves mainly beer, but also wine and other products, to Australia, New Zealand and China, with inroads being made in Europe and the US. With annual revenues of $2 billion, the size of the operation is significant, but, says CIO Darryl Sessions, it is a "lean" one. IT in the company is, he says, "primarily focused on core systems" and is seen as "an enabler of the current business".

"IT," he notes, "is looked at as a key supporter of an organisational push, across all functions, to do more with less - efficiency and effectiveness in all groups driven in part by technology improvements and developments."

Despite having a significant $500 million turnover and a high profile in the eastern half of Australia, home builder AV Jennings has a surprisingly small IT staff. Stephen Piaud, information services manager, says that apart from CAD designers and other "pseudo-IT people" a staff of about 10 handles the company's IT needs. These are primarily aimed at "getting information to the people who have to make business decisions as quickly and efficiently as possible", as well as accounting, telemarketing, e-mail, and standard office administration.

"Disaster recovery and network management are a couple of the big-ticket items," he adds. "Network traffic includes voice traffic, and the potential integration - maybe! - of voice onto data lines."

Piaud concurs that integration of disparate technologies is a can of worms.

"Where we have a mix of legacy systems, we're going to have that inherent problem. I think it will be dollar-driven. It's probably going to be a sliding scale between the 'Mickey Mouse' and the million-dollar solution. There will be something in between which will cater for our needs now, and then we may re-budget in a strategy further down the track. We're just starting to explore these areas."

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