The scientist as CIO

The scientist as CIO

Dr Phillip Lindsay, CIO of AgResearch, has been applying ICT to the needs of various research organisations since 1982.

Dr Phillip Lindsay, CIO of AgResearch, has been applying ICT to the needs of various research organisations since 1982. The work involves him in a uniquely diverse set of responsibilities."We have the normal management systems that any business has, covering the standard financial and business processes -- a CRI [Crown Research Institute] like ours is similar to a commercial organisation from an information management point of view," says Lindsay. "We have all the same challenges around revenue, expenditure, business development, client management and all those areas."At the other extreme, we run a lot of specialised instrumentation" -- this is increasingly digital and involves increasing amounts of data and speeds of data transmission, with real-time flows of data often from outposts in the field, where data pertaining to agricultural and biological research usually is. The advent of high-throughput instrumentation sees AgResearch's breadth of activity multiplied by the complexity and sheer volume of the data. "It means I have to have a very broad range of knowledge to be able to contribute strategically and operationally to all those [research] areas," he says.As CIO, one of his challenges is having a "really demanding user-base".

Many of the institution's 650 scientific staff have a knowledge of and enthusiasm for the potential of computing. "They want to do their own thing. We're a corporate organisation; we need to control our costs. The only way you can control costs is to limit the diversity."

In particular, the computer equipment and software is locked down to a standardised environment, based on Microsoft software, with a little open-source, "but at the same time we have to make it rich enough to keep 95 percent of the customers happy," he adds."We have more than 400 specialist applications, but within the standard office functions we have a very standardised environment. That's allowed us to manage our costs very well.

Our TCO [total cost of ownership] is quite low by industry standards."Working 'in silico'Lindsay and his team seem to have been very successful in reconciling those competing needs. "We're probably one of the leading organisations in the country in running a standardised environment for the use of a large and diverse user base. They know that they can rely on it."At the same time, he says, "We work with our people to implement specialised packages to support their area of work".An increasing amount of experimental work involves digital simulation, working "in silico", as Lindsay puts it. "Three or four years ago we did a survey of the amount of time our scientists spend actively using computers in their work and it was well over 50 percent" with huge potential benefit to the country.

"Our users appreciate that it's well run and well organised; they appreciate the standardisation." He acknowledges, though that some of them push the limits sometimes."There's not a process written down to [successfully] reconcile those competing objectives," Lindsay says. "I think the answer is in the quality of staff I have. Our environment, because it's interesting and diverse, attracts really good staff. We can't pay top rate for our staff [like a private-sector organisation]. We keep them because they're interested in the work they do. They interact well with our customers in meeting their needs within the services that we offer."

Lindsay is one of a handful of CIOs with a PhD. His doctorate, gained in 1983, unusually combined chemistry and computing, though his early computer work was in electronics development. Lindsay has had a long-term interest in the development of the internet and was the foundation chair of the first University and CRI networking group (TuiaNet). He continues this interest today as a member of the board of the Next Generation Internet Society. Lindsay is also a member of the NZ Computer Society and the Institute of Directors. His background in the hard and applied sciences comes in handy, as he works with experts across various fields at AgResearch.Lindsay has a team of 45, comprising "six or seven providing high-level technical expertise, eight to nine developers, including a database administrator, two web developers one geographic information systems expert and six specialists in bioinformatics", as well as more general but equally crucial support staff.Bioinformatics, with its detailed data on, for example, animal genes, accounts for a lot of the huge growth in the volume of data held and manipulated.

AgResearch participates in internationally collaborative research projects, such as a current study of the deer genome.The huge volume and complexity of data is compounded by the fact that, like many commercial organisations, AgResearch has become a 24x7 operation, as it collaborates increasingly with research teams in other time zones. This means fewer windows for maintenance and more upgrades on-the-fly. You can't stop the system to install something new, says Lindsay.On the more standard office side of ICT development, the organisation has implemented a major document management system. "That's partly for compliance with the Public Records Act, but also to ensure that all the information in the AgResearch data stores is readily findable -- to avoid the position, common to scientific and commercial organisations, where 'we don't know what we don't know'." The system "is aligned around exposing our knowledge assets, and at the same time, we hope, meeting compliance", he says. "But we're very much taking a value-added approach, rather than simply a compliance approach."We're using Microsoft SharePoint and we've done a lot of software development around that, to enhance it and create the right environment" he says. "That's been successful. Just before Christmas we rolled out our 100th major project in our document management system."We're letting it grow organically rather than pushing people into it," he says, but increasingly discreet pressure will be applied for everyone to row in with the new style of document management.

"We appreciate it's a major shift for a user to go away from an environment of shared drives and personal drives into a managed environment with a lot more discipline around the way information is filed. But this means there's one version of the truth."It's much bigger than a technology challenge," he says. "It's a challenge to user philosophy and approach."There are special requirements on a document management system for use in scientific research. The types of data collected are different from those in a typical commercial document management system. With such unusual information as genomic sequences, "it's quite a challenge to architect the system, to decide where things optimally sit -- whether they're in the system of outside, and if they're outside how you keep track of them.

"We're a leader in bioinformatics computing and we've recently been appointed as a New Zealand-wide provider of those services to other CRIs and universities -- a development called New Zealand Genomics Ltd."Such services will also be provided to overseas institutions; New Zealand will be able to process work during the customer's night-time hours. One of the other big successes has been an upgrade to the videoconferencing system.

It connects all the AgResearch campuses, allowing collaboration through high-definition video links that can truly be said to create "telepresence" and it's as near as possible to being in the same room as collaborators. The video network is based on Tandberg hardware."We've always been a very distributed organisation and we've had videoconferencing for about nine years. But implementing high-definition equipment has brought a whole new level of remote interaction and it has been fantastic," he says. "People can share things as basic as planning and budgeting processes, but also look at equipment we've developed and interact with our customers in troubleshooting sophisticated technology. It's almost like being there."Better quality video and sound means it's possible to have longer meetings remotely, without the stress and fatigue of using a lower-quality link. "It saves money on travel and enables much better collaboration with our partners," says Lindsay."Videoconferencing is getting a lot of traction in research environments," he says.

Managing staff over a number of sites is easier because interactions are richer in their information content and can be more frequent. "With a high-definition image and high-quality sound, the quality of videoconferencing is very much improved -- and I mean the videoconferencing as a whole, not just the technology."Another Kiwi firstLast year, AgResearch's main technology provider HP chose it as one of only about 12 organisations in the world to be an early test environment for a lot of the company's laboratory-related technology. "We've been actively involved in that programme now for about six months and it'll be ramping up this year," says Lindsay. It allows AgResearch scientists to "play with all the new toys", he says, but on a more serious note supplies needed up-to-date information-processing resource, which is always in short supply and positions the organisation at the front-end of computing development.Lindsay has become the first New Zealander to join HP's Global Enterprise Storage and Servers (ESS) Software and BladeSystem Advisory Council. This is a platform for thought leaders to share their views on how technology can help overcome business challenges. The council's members also act as test partners for HP's ESS software and BladeSystem products and services.AgResearch's unusual breadth of activities should enable it to make a particularly individual and strong contribution to HP's development effort, says Lindsay. "A lot of the movement in technology is towards much more adaptive architectures, [exploiting] virtualisation, to be able to bring new resources to problems quickly," and AgResearch has the right profile to test such developments rigorously."The opportunity to interact with CIOs of 11 other major companies, all hugely bigger than we are, will be really exciting from a professional point of view," he says.

Among the biggest challenges for the AgResearch CIO in the coming year on a technical front is management of the rapidly growing volume of data, including provision for backup. "We're planning a major storage upgrade using a three-tier storage hierarchy" with full replication between at least two of its major sites.Maintaining the 24x7 operation required to work with institutions around the world poses a continuing challenge, but some of the HP equipment AgResearch will be putting through its paces should improve that situation. It is engineered to permit troubleshooting, repair and upgrade, and the provisioning of new servers and storage without having to bring parts of the system down, says Lindsay.

Keeping existing applications running and making appropriate provisions for security and resilience, cuts into the "freeboard" that an organisation like AgResearch needs to try out new ideas and keep moving ahead, he says. "I think this is probably a challenge for a lot of CIOs. Everybody's environment is getting more sophisticated, everybody's doing new things. The more sophisticated your environment gets, the more time it takes to manage. Just maintaining security -- firewalls, antivirus precautions and such -- takes more than one full-time person. It's a matter of getting the risk/reward curve in the right place, so you're doing enough to manage your systems well, but giving yourself the opportunity to look at new things and to do new things."There's no well-defined answer to managing that balance, he says. "It's just a challenge in today's environment."

AgResearch is now delivering computer systems to "a huge number of people" in other CRIs and universities, as well as taking "commercial opportunities". That brings with it some big challenges in service management, customer management and helpdesk services, he says.Helpdesk staff need to be more skilled than is typically the case in a commercial organisation, says Lindsay, because researchers drive the system harder. Even in writing reports, they will use the much more advanced features of Microsoft Word than commercial users typically do.Participation in international research consortia, particularly in genomics, has been made possible by the KAREN network linking to transnational networks allowing huge volumes of data to be moved among research institutions. It's all a headache for a CIO trying to keep on top of expanding processing and storage needs.

"We'll be implementing a small supercomputer and further expanding our server farm," he says.AgResearch was appointed in December to lead a greenhouse gas research centre in New Zealand that will link to international research networks on that front. It will naturally concentrate on the gas emission problems created by livestock.

When interviewed in December, Lindsay was in the process of writing an information management strategy for that centre."We've embarked on a company-wide view of the way we report and what we report on," he says. "We're asking, how do we measure the value that AgResearch adds? In many organisations, the major focus is on financials. We're trying to broaden our metrics so we can quantify gains in scientific knowledge, for example. That's quite difficult to do. We're looking to do a lot more economic analysis around the impact of our technologies, for example the gain in farming productivity arising out of genetic research." By developing methods of economic analysis, AgResearch hopes to be able to quantify more precisely the potential economic gains of planned research. Its information systems will naturally be a key factor in evolving these techniques.

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags CIO100AgResearchPhillip Lindsay

More about BioinformaticsHPMicrosoftTCO

Show Comments