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Excavating IT

Excavating IT

An overhaul of the IT network of mining and civil construction group Macmahon Holdings integrated access and operations. It has also made life easier for employees.

When he started in 2002, as Macmahon Holdings' chief information officer, Jason Cowie found the company's IT division had a poor reputation for internal service. Macmahon's business takes its employees to many inaccessible locations; its work includes the management of mines and infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and dams, across more than 50 locations and offices throughout Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

To clean up his division's act, Cowie met with the company's senior managers in Perth to define the problems.

The main complaint was that IT was unable to properly support employees' work as they moved thousands of kilometres around the region, and this was hindering productivity. The IT division was regarded as the heart of the problem.

Dirt and desert

"We're actually in the middle of nowhere; it's dirt and desert," Cowie says. "Many of our locations are literally just big blocks of dirt with no towns. You fly in and that's where we are working.

"Because we're a contracting organisation, many of our staff move from site to site at both management and working levels. The major issue we faced, from an IT viewpoint, was that our people just could not be truly mobile."

Equipment such as notebooks and servers needed to be reconfigured at each new location, costing workers downtime and inactivity. Even when the infrastructure had been set up, users encountered poor connectivity speeds with their 56k modems. There were also multiple data locations with servers on every site acting as information silos. "What's more, we didn't have any data sharing," Cowie says. "Every site had its own server.

"Collaboration of documents and working together was poor. People using multiple systems often had to work with a lot of usernames and passwords, so there was no real co-ordinated view.

"If their PC died they'd have to send it all the way back to Perth to get reconfigured and rebuilt. There was a lot of downtime and a lot of user frustration," he says.

The division's poor reputation made it difficult for Cowie to talk to managers in the organisation. Some were keen to discuss issues with him. Others were not. "They said: 'Look, you are IT. We don't like IT'," he says.

In one situation, Cowie had to literally place his job on the line when handling a manager who was very much against IT.

"I promised that if I couldn't make an improvement from IT within six months, I would resign," he says.

"The flip side of that agreement was he had to give me his full support for the six months.

"He did that and, fortunately, I didn't have to resign because he was happy with the turnaround."

A new perspective

The solution to solving all the problems raised by managers, Cowie says, was to be honest in his approach. His goal was to develop a new look and perspective for the company. His answer came in the form of a single infrastructure called Global One.

"I thought one big network could fix all our problems," he says. "It was the concept of one global network for every user, for every office, for every site; no matter where they are, everyone's on the one network."

Supporting Global One would be five concepts: mobility, integration, centralisation, virtualisation and collaboration.

Mobility would involve users being able to work from any location using any terminal. "It doesn't matter which PC you're using, or which terminal you're on," Cowie says. "You just walk up, put your user name and password in, and a virtual desktop is delivered to you."

The concept of integration would enable employees to access systems with a single user name and password. Cowie decided to take it further by linking it to an identity within the system where each user would be given certain access rights. Centralisation involves bringing all the company's data into a single location, while virtualisation was part of the drive to make a virtual desktop, allowing users access from anywhere.

The last would be collaboration. "I reckoned that if we were all on the one network and could all share the same data, that would allow our people to work on projects and documents together," he says.

The communications network - the laying out of ADSL lines - would be handled by Telstra. The network core, including login systems and the management of user identities, would be handled by Novell.

The virtual desktop and access gateways would be provided by Citrix, while the data infrastructure, servers, switches, back-up tools and tape libraries, were from IBM.

"If we could fix these, we'd be more efficient," Cowie says. "That's why we made those the core concepts of Global One."

In 2004, he started his five-year IT strategic plan for more than 1600 users throughout the organisation.

Once completed, Global One will replace all servers across Macmahon's offices and sites with one centralised core network. The desktops and laptops will be replaced by thin terminals.

A user will be able to log onto the network through a virtual desktop using a single user name and password. Once verified, the main system will load the user's profile and applications based on their identity. The single sign-on mechanism saves the user from having to log on with different user names and passwords while accessing various applications. The main system can also perform auditing, and can control each user's storage capacity.

Three phases

The project is being implemented in three phases. First, the basic applications that individuals use such as email and internet browser were launched last July, six months ahead of schedule, Cowie says. It also features network security, application management and single sign-in functions.

Phase two will enhance the asset management and identity management behind the scenes, and build in the high-end graphics CAD and 3D-modelling applications. Cowie estimates this phase will be finished soon.

"Phase three, which we're now planning, concerns collaboration," he says. This includes instant messaging and unified messaging tools. Cowie works closely with vendors to ensure the successful delivery of products, and says the key to success is communicating honestly with them.

When the project was still in its pilot stage, Novell was so impressed with Global One and Cowie's vision that it decided to give Macmahon the entire suite of products, without imposing a large licence fee upgrade.

In another instance, Cowie initially had ordered a set of rack servers from IBM, but realised he should have bought blade servers when it was announced that blades had been certified to work with Novell. After letting IBM know about his predicament, IBM sent everything back to the United States and replaced the order with blades at no cost or penalty.

Cowie believes a smooth relationship would not be possible with the corporate world's normal adversarial approach of treating vendors as enemies.

"That's unfortunately what a lot of people do in IT today," he says. "They think, 'I'm going to screw you down; I'm going to get the best price I can, and then you're out of the picture'.

"CIOs want to get the best price they can. That's wrong. That's looking short term; looking narrow.

Global One finished ahead of schedule and on budget, and delivered exactly what we said it would deliver."

Getting the buy-in

One of the most important factors in having a smooth implementation is getting the nod from users, Cowie says.

"A good CIO will talk to the enterprise and users at a business level, and will explain the business or user benefit," he says. "No one in the business cares about what happens in the back room."

Every year during the organisation's management forum, Cowie and his IT division present an update of the project, highlighting milestones and future plans.

"If you get the business to buy into your vision, it's going to be more likely to adopt it and more likely to support it," he says. "If you ignore the business as you try to shove technology down its throat, it's going to say 'no, I don't want it'."

With the first phase now up and running, Cowie says the biggest user benefit is that employees can quickly start up and can easily work anywhere.

"When users go onsite, they can immediately save maybe one to two hours by not having to wait for IT to reconfigure their computers," he says. "They don't have to wait for data to be transferred." The new system also means people do not have to come back to a stockpile of work and email at the office.

Just one day

Cowie's team has managed to cut down the time taken to establish IT infrastructure at remote worksites to only one day. Previously, the IT division had to buy a server, configure it and run tests, all taking up to a month.

The department has now eliminated the server, only needing to set up a client terminal and router.

"We do not have to configure hardware like PCs, laptops and servers any more," Cowie says. "All we have to do is maintain the company's virtual environment."

The IT division has also made it simple to manage passwords. "The IT guys don't have to create a user account on one network for email and then another for network access and then one for internet access. It's now an all-in-one management tool," he says.

With virtual desktops, it meant having fewer items for Cowie's engineers to diagnose.

"If a user is unable to log on, it's a hardware fault," he says. "Otherwise, it's simply a matter of trouble shooting the individual user account."

Dust and surges

Being in a remote area, dust and power are two major issues Macmahon workers have to confront.

"A lot of our computer equipment, particularly servers, printers, desktops and laptops, only last one year, maybe 18 months, because you have constant dust coming through, and constant power surges from the generators," Cowie says.

"The fewer working parts of a thin terminal means it can last longer than either a notebook or desktop.

"We can go through 10 thin terminals before we've even used more money than one laptop for the site.

"We don't have the problems of computer loss and data loss; if the thin terminal breaks, you just jump onto another thin terminal. All the programs are there. All the software is there."

Global One has made it easier to manage the IT division's software licences.

Previously, a user would just use a software application once.

Now, a program under Global One enables the IT team to track programs that have not been in use for months and slot them into a stockpile of licences. When a user indicates his request for a program, the division would then forward the tool to the user's virtual desktop account.

"It is about $US460 ($486) to $US560 for an Office suite, but when you're talking some mining software, it may cost up to $US56,000 and that really adds up," Cowie says. "It is better to manage the number of licences we have."

The low IT set-up costs helps make it simple for the company to expand operations into other countries.

"If we want to dabble in other countries, we can start out relatively quickly with low overheads, and see if there's a viable option there," he says.

"If there's not, we can pull out. If there is, then we can just expand as we go."

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