Mapping out the NBN Co IT paradigm


feature When it comes to selecting IT platforms and partners to support its business mission, the Federal Government-owned National Broadband Network Company faces a somewhat unique set of problems and opportunities.

When most organisations go through this kind of internal IT infrastructure rollout, they have to do so with the awareness of either a certain degree of legacy, in the case of a large organisation with an established history of operations, or they have to do so with the awareness of starting small, with limited resources that will scale up over time as the organisation grows — in the case of a startup.

But NBN Co faces neither of these issues.

Like many startups, the company has kicked off its operations from scratch — with a blank slate on which to paint a picture of what it may look like in future. There’s no legacy IT environment at NBN Co to worry about; no ageing servers located in branch offices to rationalise; no mainframe applications dating back to the 1990’s which need to be modernised; no datasets in unusual formats which need converting.

However, the company also has very few constraints. With its Federal Government shareholders having committed to ploughing tens of billions of dollars into its operations and a timeline that stretches off for many decades, the company can afford to think large, long and premium — it can afford the best, and to get the best value for its money over the next several decades as it rolls out broadband infrastructure around Australia, it should probably try not to compromise on technology issues. If it does, those same issues will likely come back to bite it a few years down the track.

To many in Australia’s IT industry, it might sound like the perfect problem to have — a mandate to spend a solid budget on the best technology solutions, in a company focused on technology itself. But according to the company’s general manager of enterprise architecture, Bill Barnett (pictured, right), NBN Co’s situation comes with its own set of issues.

“To some degree, it’s easier to find a piece from an existing puzzle than having to draw the puzzle from scratch,” he says in a recent interview.

Some of the questions which NBN Co’s fledgling team of IT executives have faced over the past several years, as it has established and ramped up its operations, go right to heart of the technology decision-making process.

For example, the company has faced the issue of whether to select individual best of breed solution sets and vendors for each piece of that IT puzzle (for example, telecommunications billing and service management, HR, financial, procurement, ERP and CRM systems, unified communications, server hardware and software, business analytics and more), or whether to pick a smaller number of vendors which could offer the company integrated solutions branching across various areas.

It was important that the solutions which NBN Co picked were also not fly by night options — with NBN Co’s long time frames in mind, the companies concerned would need to be along for the long haul. And they would also need to have strong partner ecosystems to aid with systems integration.

However, according to Bartnett and fellow NBN Co staffer Simon Jackson (the company’s general manager for business and commercial platforms), point out, there wasn’t much time to evaluate those products or get them up and running. In many cases, the platforms they chose would have to be up and running before the NBN Co business units were in place that would be using them.

“We stood these suites up before we had functioning business units — certainly before we had business processes,” Barnett says. The products just had to work out of the box — and they had to work quickly.

Exacerbating the situation was the fact that the staff choosing and implementing the solutions were new to NBN Co themselves. NBN Co has made a point of hiring many of the best and most experienced technical staff in Australia’s technology sector. However, if you trawl through the resumes of the hundreds of staff now working at the company (a good way to do this is by searching professional social network LinkedIn), you’ll see most of the company’s staff only have a year or so experience at the fledgling company. If you’ve been at NBN Co for more than a year, you’re a veteran — and if you’ve been there for at least two, you’ve probably already been promoted once.

Barnett says in the early days there was no established problem-solving mechanism for reaching agreement on some technical decisions — and in the “early days”, if a new staff member was hired for a particular skillset, they would need to demonstrate that expertise by using it — and quickly so. Barnett himself has only been at NBN Co since February 2010 (a scant six months after the company was established), and Jackson even less time — since January 2011.

One final factor also complicated NBN Co’s IT infrastructure design process.

Jackson says although in many ways NBN Co’s staff hadn’t anticipated the challenges they would face in designing its IT environment, aside from “very conceptual” industry standard models that it could draw on, it also didn’t want to take too much of an orthodox path in that process.

“We also want to make sure we challenge the model,” he says, noting it would be a “lost opportunity” for NBN Co’s staff to simply replicate existing IT infrastructure models without examining some of their underpinning assumptions. Staff asked themselves what “should” be best practice, he said — going back to basics and examining the business processes they were trying to map.

Some of those decisions were initially relatively easy. In late 2009, shortly after NBN Co was established, it rapidly inked a series of contracts with diversified IT products and services group Data#3 in the areas of procurement, office software, designing and implementing an office LAN/WAN environment and deploying a hosted, managed Microsoft Outlook/Exchange email platform. These were the first building blocks in what would become NBN Co’s internal IT infrastructure.

Others soon followed.

In March 2010 Accenture won the right to provide NBN Co with a hosted HR platform, in November that year NBN Co picked Global Switch’s mammoth Sydney facility as its prime datacentre, shortly after it was announced that the cloud infrastructure consortium consisting of VMware, Cisco and EMC (VCE) would kit out that datacentre, and in March 2011 one of the company’s largest deals was signed, with the announcement that IBM would build NBN Co’s business and operational support systems, in a deal worth some $200 million.

In May that year NBN Co added Citrix desktop virtualisation software to its list, and in June it handed support for the desktop systems which Data#3 rolled out to Japanese vendor Fujitsu.

And — although it was known that Oracle had been key to NBN Co for some time — in January this year it was revealed that Larry Ellison’s team would provide the software supporting NBN Co … with a plethora of Oracle applications ranging from CRM on Demand to E-Business Suite, from Business Intelligence to Identity Management 11g and even Primavera having been bedded in at NBN Co. The US software giant also named NBN Co chief information officer Claire Rawlins as CIO of the year at its OpenWorld confab in San Francisco — and with the complexity and breadth of NBN Co’s Oracle rollout, it’s not hard to see why.

And of course — although it’s outside the scope of this article, being customer-focused telco infrastructure rather than IT gear — none of this is taking into account the mammoth network infrastructure rollout contracts which NBN Co has signed with several handfuls of other firms, in areas such as fibre, wireless and satellite.

Examining why NBN Co picked Oracle for so many of its internal IT systems helps give onlookers an understanding of the way the company’s IT management has been thinking over those past few turbulent years.

Barnett and Jackson describe the vendor as a ‘strategic partner’ whose solutions in many cases can provide the bulk of what NBN Co was looking for. The company didn’t spend a lot of time looking for best of breed products — but rather for integrated suites which would provide 85 percent or more of what it needed — a “broad sweep of functionality”.

“We needed a set of very basic but mature capabilities around HR, finance and procurement,” says Jackson. “Enterprise capabilities which were very robust, highly auditable — and plug and play solutions”. He adds that NBN Co closely examined the vanilla features available from the various suites. “We don’t need to have a differentiating proposition,” he adds — NBN Co being a monopoly player in its space.

The pair won’t say specifically which vendors they examined in the crowded business software space. However, Barnett says, there are obviously “two titans” in the area — by which he likely refers to Oracle and arch-rival SAP — as well as some players “around the edges”.

Jackson says there are places for all options in the business software marketplace — and CIOs “need to make a call themselves” on what’s suitable for their business, whether that be a best of breed vendor or an integrated suite such as that provided by Oracle and SAP. In NBN Co’s case, the suite approach “really matches and supports our strategies”, he says, but for a number of organisations it may be different — they may look at a best of breed requirement instead.

However, even though NBN Co picked a large, well-supported vendor like Oracle to support many of its platforms, that doesn’t mean the US software giant won the deal easily.

Barnett and Jackson say it was important for them to examine Oracle’s (notoriously torturously complex) future development roadmap, and NBN Co is actively working with the software giant on how that roadmap would develop in future. In this light, NBN Co has an obvious and unique ability to contribute towards Oracle’s development plans — for example, helping the company develop its wholesale capabilities. NBN Co will, after all, be one of the world’s first pure wholesale telecommunications monopolies developed from scratch.

In addition, Jackson (pictured, left) says, NBN Co has developed a strong focus on internal identity management. “We’re probably one of the leaders of single sign-on globally,” he says.

Other choices which NBN Co made revolved around the choice of whether to deploy in-house, managed or completely externally hosted platforms. Notably, the company has chosen Oracle’s CRM on Demand platform, which many would consider inferior to a best of breed platform such as Oracle isn’t known for its software as a service capabilities, but recently established a CRM on Demand node with local company Harbour MSP, which also uses the Global Switch datacentre in Pyrmont, Sydney. And of course, its email platform is also remotely hosted.

“Buy versus rent is a really interesting conversation,” says Barnett. “The fact that you can take on a product with no datacentre footprint, no investment in your technical staff. I think the business case for that is incredibly compelling. I think we’re finding that the options in the market are getting rapidly more mature.”

Of course, there are still “issues around where the data is housed, and where the processing is occurring” — issues which would likely prevent NBN Co from hosting too much of its data offshore, as a quasi-government organisation. However it’s not too hard to see the company shifting some lower-priority workloads off to other partners at some stage in the future — particularly as it has had a highly virtualised IT infrastructure right from the start.

At the end of the day, NBN Co’s internal IT systems are an evolving beast. With some unique challenges — dealing with massive and rapid growth, dealing with a brand new workforce, and even dealing with a fairly unique business model — NBN Co’s is always going to be a unique IT environment which will require both orthodox and outside the box thinking.

Looming over everything, of course, is the prospect that the project may be dramatically modified if the Coalition wins the next Federal Election and changes the project’s mission — and NBN Co itself — drastically. Those who work at NBN Co are aware — and particularly so after the last knife-edge election in 2010 — that much of what they do may be for nought in a few years.

But it’s still early days for the organisation yet, and speaking to its IT executives, it’s hard not to get a sense that some great work is being done. There’s a huge sense of optimism in the air, and an appetite for facing technical challenges head-on. Apple founder Steve Jobs might have found a lot to like at NBN Co — in many ways, it appears to be a company of “A players” — the elite.

“The team that’s here, pretty much, everybody self-selected to come to this kind of environment,” says Barnett. “You don’t have anyone who’s trying to coast along with the organisation. I don’t want to sound like it’s Kumbaya … but we’re really excited about working together to get the best outcome for the business.” And in any business, that’s what building internal IT infrastructure should fundamentally be all about.

Image credit: NBN Co, Bill Barnett and Simon Jackson


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