Dream merchants

In the middle of all the current doom and gloom, CIOs still have to plan infrastructure for the future. Piers Ford asks CIOs what systems they are dreaming about in 2009.
Dream merchants
By Piers Ford
Sun 15 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

In the middle of all the current doom and gloom, CIOs still have to plan infrastructure for the future. Piers Ford asks CIOs what systems they are dreaming about in 2009.

It isn't surprising that the credit crunch is casting a long shadow over CIOs' aspirations for IT evolution over the next five years. The good news for the IT industry is that they are not entirely preoccupied with cutting back.

Where they can match technological innovation with business processes, they are still planning a bright future based on strategic investment in their IT systems. Ask them about their dream systems, and business process software, cloud computing and more effective ways to enable remote working are all recurring themes, suggesting that tough economic times could even lead to more enterprising IT departments.

The credit crunch will really help you to get your priorities right. Since there will be budget cuts, you’ll inevitably prioritise with ROI in mind. I also think there hasn’t been a better time to venture deeper in open source.

"The credit crunch will really help you to get your priorities right," says Dubai-based Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director MENA for advertising giant Leo Burnett Group. "Since there will be budget cuts, you'll inevitably prioritise with ROI in mind. I also think there hasn't been a better time to venture deeper in open source. It's amazing what you can find out there."

Aboukhater expects three main business issues to drive IT system evolution in the Middle East for the foreseeable future: compliance, customer service, and future mergers and acquisitions.

"Transparency, or the lack of it, has been a major contributor to the volatility of the markets," he says. "With major fraud cases surfacing, there will be more pressure to have the right controls in place from the very beginning. It's a tough balancing act and IT is the key.

"What goes around comes around. In a boom, no one cares about customer service because there are plenty of fish in the sea. Now, you can see that everyone is trying much harder. Besides the obvious training, many companies will need well-integrated systems to make sure they are better at holding customers' hands and quicker in anticipating their needs," he continues.

Moving forward, Aboukhater believes that we will see more and more consolidation: "This will pose big challenges for IT systems and infrastructure. If faced with the right attitude, it would be a great opportunity to innovate and implement best of breed products."

At manufacturing and fabrication group Zamil International, based in Saudi Arabia, CIO Zaki Sabbagh says business intelligence and cloud computing will be vital issues for IT professionals to address.

He suggests that the much-hyped ‘Green IT' benefits that vendors like to indulge in when promoting these concepts are of little strategic importance on the ground. Energy in the region is still much cheaper than in the Western world where these marketing messages tend to originate from.

But the potential business benefits of cloud computing and business intelligence - even though it has been around for so long - will dominate CIO thinking.

"Cloud computing is probably the most important, and we are practicing it already," he says. "The infrastructure in the region is improving, there is less interruption and bandwidth is higher.

So the complexity of our IT systems is growing in terms of maintenance, management and the cost of services. I think vendors have provided some nice solutions at departmental level, but culturally people are accepting it higher up and we're becoming more adaptive. So the cloud is shifting from the department up to a corporate level.

"Business intelligence is an old issue but after vendors like IBM, Oracle and others have been so acquisitive, there are still a lot of legacy systems out there that can't be directly replaced: only BI has the capability to aggregate them. At the same time, however complex it is at the back end, it is easy to use at the front end and is unmatched in its ability to drill down for decision making," continues Sabbagh.

It could ultimately replace traditional reporting tools because it is very effective and you can immediately show its value," he states. "Very few companies in the region have addressed BI properly because it's been seen as an add-on solution, but that trend is starting to change now."

Vendors have been quick to seize on these potential openings in a market that would otherwise be looking very strained. At Leo Burnett, Aboukhater says he is "certainly" getting more attention from current and new vendors as competition for the CIO's business heats up in the Middle East market of new infrastructure."Today's CIOs are under increasing pressure to reduce costs and maximise existing resources," says Christoph Reichert, VP High Performance Computing (HPC) sales at vendor Platform Computing.

"At the same time, they are faced with a need for greater IT processing power and the significant challenge of making the best possible decisions in the shortest amount of time. CIOs in many industries including financial services, oil and gas, and electronics, are turning to the many benefits that high performance computing offers." he says.

"The technology involves pooling processing power across an organisation to create a virtual supercomputer, so that processing power can be deployed where and when it is needed most," adds Reichert.

Transparency, or the lack of it, has been a major contributor to the volatility of the markets. With major fraud cases surfacing, there will be more pressure to have the right controls in place. It’s a tough balancing act.

"This pooling of computing power is just the start. In the next 18 months, organisations will begin to start pooling the power of their data centres to establish ‘internal clouds', giving users significant computing power on tap," he expects.

Reichert's prediction echoes Zaki Sabbagh's similar view that the concept of cloud computing is gaining favour fast. But Sabbagh says there are other technologies which will also become increasingly important architectural weapons in the CIO's armoury of systems to be deployed in 2009.

"Virtualisation will be crucial from an architecture point of view," he says. "We've already started to create our first virtualised systems environment. Over the last three or four years, we've introduced armies of blade servers which are generating huge amounts of heat and cooling requirements, and they're all using hugely varying percentages of their overall capacity."

Airline inspirationVendor Amadeus has a strong presence in the Middle East, supplying technology to all Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) airlines including Etihad, as well as many travel agencies. Few sectors have been hit as quickly and sharply by the downturn, and executive vice president for development Jean-Paul Hamon says CIOs in other industries could do well to watch how this market responds to tough economic conditions.

"CIOs will be under significant pressure to reduce costs," he explains. "In the past, many CIOs have simply reduced costs by cutting the IT budget and often delaying important technology projects. Unfortunately, this often leaves organisations in a more vulnerable position and less able to compete in both good and bad times - one thing CIOs must avoid in the current climate.

"Their challenge is to maintain the dual principles of innovation - vital to the long term health of any organisations - and cost control. This is what our community-based management platform, which allows airlines to adopt new generation technology on a pay-per-use basis - enabled for airline."

Hamon says agile IT infrastructures will become very important as they support the dynamic strategies organisations need in order to survive: "This will mean balancing projects that deliver measurable ROI and those critical to your long-term IT strategy."

"Virtualisation will help us tailor our computing needs and dedicate virtual machines to the needs of specific services," continues Platform Computing's Reichert.

Leo Burnett's Aboukhater agrees, although his focus will be primarily on the desktop.

"Windows Server 2008 looks very promising, especially for remote offices," he says. "It's something we're planning to start using this year. Storage and desktop virtualisation is another interesting area. Once this technology is mature enough, it will potentially create a lot of efficiencies."

Back at the enterprise end of the market, Sabbagh believes Service-Oriented Architectures (SOA) will also be important for driving future integration and business process development.

"We're using it to manage our global business operations," he adds, "but if there are green IT benefits that arise, they will be a consequence of this action rather than a strategic target.

Cutting-edge vendors might be surprised to hear that many technologies that are based on a utopian view of integration, such as unified communications, do not necessarily dominate the thoughts of CIOs at the present time.

Sabbagh says that futuristic technology unified communications will arrive in due course but its advance will solely depend on the demand for applications and the quality of the networks - although he concedes that brand new companies could possibly find it a good proposition.

What keeps CIOs awake at nightWhile many CIOs are keen to pursue the benefits of innovative technology, research suggests that on a day-to-day basis, they continue to be troubled by a traditional mixture of prosaic and complex issues.

A recent survey in the US carried out by the Society for Information Management (SIM) revealed that a lack of alignment between IT and the business remains a major concern for senior IT executives.

"In today's ever-evolving global economy, the question no longer is: how can IT be better aligned with business? But, how can business and technology be better aligned with each other," says Jerry Luftman, VP of academic community affairs at SIM. "This is a crucial question that businesses need to answer because good alignment translates into increased innovation and revenue."

These are currently the CIO's top ten IT management concerns, according to the SIM:

1. IT and business alignment

2. Building business skills in IT

3. IT strategic planning

4. Attracting new IT professionals

5. Making better use of information

6. Managing change

7. Reducing the cost of doing business

8. Improving IT quality

9. Retaining IT professionals

10. Security and privacy

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