The following question and answer briefing with McGrathNicol chief information officer Shiran Herath and technology manager John Fahey was sent to us by Microsoft, as part of the Tech.Ed conference on the Gold Coast this week and the launch of Windows Server 2012. Normally Delimiter does not publish vendor announcements verbatim, but this material was sufficiently interesting that we decided to publish it at length. This isn’t the normal vendor PR guff.
Can you please give me a brief overview of McGrathNicol and your IT operations?
Shiran Herath: McGrathNicol is an independent advisory firm, specialising in Corporate Advisory, Forensic, Transaction Services and Corporate Recovery. We are a market leader in Australia and New Zealand, with more than 30 partners and 300 people across the region.
IT operations function within a well-defined strategy, driven by a four-pillar framework. It depends on Microsoft for all its applications and software platforms, HP for all hardware, Cisco for all network infrastructure, and Telstra for all communications services, including mobile devices and land phone lines. A key point about our technology environment: simple and standard – every office, every staff member from Partner to administration level has identical devices with same capabilities.
My name is Shiran Herath and I am the CIO. John Fahey is the Technology Manager. There is 13 full time staff in the IT team as well as a few contractors.
McGrathNicol’s strategic plans include investing in new and sound technology. We invest around 4% of the firm’s revenue in Technology, which is at the low end in the industry sector. I believe keeping ahead of our competitors and having the edge in the business requires having a sound technology platform with industry best practise support methods for our highly mobile client facing staff who could be offsite/interstate or overseas. The right technology also attracts and retains high quality staff from a client facing as well as an IT perspective.
What were some of the business challenges you were facing?
Shiran Herath: The biggest challenges for us are information risk management and cost management, while providing the users the freedom to carry out their duties. What does “Freedom” mean? The ability to work from anywhere (mobility), and be instantly connected to other staff and clients (email, instant messaging, social media and mobile desk phones) without having to understand the technology side.
I believe enterprise IT is now more driven by consumer based user experiences and technologies. This is a very different mindset compared to 10 years ago. This situation is more challenging than one would expect. The question for an enterprise is, “How do I protect my corporate Intellectual Property irrespective of how, when or the location of access?”
We are also finding that the users are far more informed and tech-savvy, which means: Less training related queries to IT service desk; and more complex and specific questions – provide alternative automated solutions to manual labour intensive work. My objective is to provide technology that supports user requirements and always be a step ahead of what is needed – I do not want technology to be a hindrance to our staff’s ability to deliver outcomes.
What specific features in Windows Server 2012 are addressing some of your IT needs?
John Fahey: Moving to Windows Server 2012 is a natural progression having started with Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V for our test, development and production environments. Everything that can be virtualised, has been, therefore we are 100% virtualised.
Keeping in mind our business objectives of risk and cost management, and system performance improvements, the biggest advantages from our perspective are: The performance improvements delivered by the Hyper-V layer (ability to add more than 4 CPUs and increased memory capacity to a virtual machine); and the ability to replicate data at the Hyper-V layer, which will assist us in setting up a disaster recovery environment.
When did you go into production?
John Fahey: We began testing with the pre-release version and instantly liked the interface and improvements. As soon the product went to RTM we started building our production systems and extending our testing further. We have systems in place such as Direct Access, and we are starting to build on our physical infrastructure layer right now. Once our physical cluster is built and operational we will migrate our virtual machines from the 2008 R2 clusters to the new 2012 clusters using SCVMM.
What are the key workloads you are using on Windows Server 2012?
John Fahey: We are currently running our Direct Access environment on Windows Server 2012. Our aim is to migrate SharePoint (intranet and internet), Exchange 2010, Lync, Dynamics AX and MYOB insolvency to Windows Server 2012. We also have a fully virtualised DMZ with TMGs and edge services, which we will move to Windows Server 2012. We are also receptive towards SQL geo-clustering to enable more replication for our disaster recovery processes.
What’s the strategic value of being an early adopter?
Shiran Herath: There are a number of significant benefits to being an early adopter:
- Significant cost savings – by all parties happy to work together sharing costs
- Develops great relationships/partnerships – everyone wants to work with you on something that they may have not done before
- Allow us to be part of the solution – partners like Microsoft and HP take our feedback/requirements and include that as part of the solution for go live, and provides us with an opportunity to work with product developers
- Provide us the ability to give something back that is more than money
- Be a leader rather than follower – providing us an edge over the others
- Attract and retain of quality staff – IT staff like to work with new toys and business staff like to be cool and have the ability to do the job efficient
We also very are fortunate to have the backing of our firm that is willing to invest in technology and see the business value in the investment.
Why did you decide on a hybrid approach?
Shiran Herath: The simple answer is we like to think the cloud is another tool in our IT toolbox. We look at our requirements and use the toolbox to achieve the outcomes. So, when we think about the business needs, our partners and technologies, we see that “cloud” does not need to be a separate system “out there“. Instead, we will integrate it into our IT environment – hence, the hybrid solution.
As part of our risk management strategy, over the next 12 months, disaster recovery is a high priority. We want to look at what benefits we can get from having a hybrid cloud to build our disaster recovery environment with a focus on cost efficiency, supportability, and scalability. We are focusing on how to integrate with our environment in a such way that end users would not know the difference if we are working under normal operations or DR mode.
You are currently looking at Windows Azure as being able to offer these capabilities, how are you working planning to integrate this type of scenario into your environment?
Shiran Herath: We know that there is a significant drive in the market for cloud solutions. We focused on risk management. We are currently operating from a centralised datacentre environment. We have the option to build another datacentre and replicate our environment for DR purposes.
The first scenario is: From our observations, cloud seems like the ideal solution for us, rather than building another datacentre we can have a slightly smaller environment in the cloud. In the event of a disaster or the need, we can very quickly expand or burst out into the cloud and provide those services through the cloud. If we were to build a second datacentre, then we need to spend capital to build the environment for the worst-case scenario. However, with the cloud we can build on minimum requirements and burst out with services on an as needs basis on short notice. This is a cost effective solution.
The second scenario is: we would like our DR environment to be one where it is not only for DR but for day-to-day use as well. I believe Azure could help us to achieve this.
We are currently working on a concept where we host our Direct Access infrastructure in the Azure cloud. Whilst the user base is on premise they use the infrastructure in our datacentre however, when off-site internet connection is via any means to our Direct Access infrastructure on the Azure cloud. Once connected to the Azure cloud they consume any services that are hosted or replicated there. Any service that is not hosted in the Azure cloud will be automatically delivered from our network to the end user via the cloud. This way we have a seamless experience between on-premise and the Azure cloud.
What’s next in terms of your IT agenda? Any other big ticket items?
Shiran Herath: Outside of Windows Server 2012, there are two other key projects: Dynamics AX implementation and disaster recovery planning.
In addition, with the assistance of Microsoft Premier Field Engineers (PFE), we have already developed Windows 8 SOE with Direct Access. We are working with HP to be one of the first businesses in Australia to receive their new business grade Ultrabooks, the Folio Elite. This will provide us with a new fleet of notebooks running Windows 8 and using direct access, which will enable us to eliminate remote connectivity technologies such as VPN, making connectivity to corporate network smooth. We are developing a timesheet entry application to use with Windows 8 UI and Dynamics AX. Microsoft PFE is helping us with this. The aim is to simplify our timesheet entry process by making it less cumbersome.
Can you explain the role and relationship of Microsoft partner, Kloud?
Shiran Herath: “QUALITY” is the utmost important thing from our point of view. Even from a business point of view, we work on significantly large engagements. As experts in the industry, the decisions we make and recommend impact many people. We got one chance at getting it right. So, one word about Kloud, “Quality”. Kloud has been our partner of choice for various engagements: Exchange, Lync, SharePoint and some internal applications.
We have a strong business relationship and we work together in the spirit of the engagement to deliver outcomes for our business. Kloud understand that when they work with us, they are helping us deliver a business improvement not just another piece of technology. Kloud has an exceptional ability to deliver and a get the job done attitude.