IT is victim of own success, says Wellcome Trust CIO

The challenge now is to manage business expectations

IT is becoming a victim of its own success, according to the Wellcome Trust's head of IT Mark Bramwell.

He uses an example from his organisation, the UK's largest biomedical research charity, which has improved system availability through virtualisation of servers with HP.

"We are at 99.97% of availability, but now every system outage is a major outage [compared with 97.5% in the past]," Bramwell says. He counts one second of downtime for one customer as an outage.

To deal with this, IT has to manage the business's expectations, which Bramwell believes requires "grown-up business relationships" and "total openness and transparency".

"Service outages are the exception now, not the norm. There's no point hiding service failures and outages. No point being evasive when they occur," he says.

"It's the role of the CIO to hold up your hand and admit to a mistake."

Bramwell claims he is able to have these grown-up business relationships because of his personal track record in delivering IT projects, and this credibility helps to build the trust with C-level peers within the organisation.

This enabled the Wellcome Trust to successfully deliver 46 major IT projects last year.

"It was virtually one [project] a week. The [business] needs to absorb that amount of change. The project doesn't stop at implementation. You have to make sure it's supporting the business growth," Bramwell says.

Although he has been head of IT at Wellcome Trust for three years, Bramwell does not have any technical qualifications in his background.

"I'm probably the least technical CIO you'll ever meet," he says.

He joined the Wellcome Trust in October 2006 as IT development manager, after nearly 16 years at retailer WHSmith as its head of IT development. He started at WHSmith on its graduate scheme in August 1991, straight out of Sheffield Hallam University, where he studied business and finance.

Bramwell admits that it is a "daily challenge" for him and his IT department to stay ahead of technological innovation. However, he supplements his lack of technical knowledge by being an active member of CIO peer groups and vendor CTO forums.

For example, he takes part in a quarterly biomedical sector CIO forum, which includes CIOs from UCL, Cancer Research UK, the Open University, Shared Service Centre Research Councils UK and the Medical Research Council. Furthermore, Wellcome Trust is part of supplier forums with strategic vendors such as HP and Dell, and with smaller firms, such as Genesis Consultancy.

It also helps to be open to suggestions for new technology from the business and users.

"The business should be driving the technology agenda," Bramwell insists.

For instance, the Wellcome Trust introduced 130 iPads to the business 18 months ago. An iPad was initially brought in by a senior executive to support paperless committee meetings. These meetings would usually require documents with hundreds of pages to be printed.

Although the iPads - along with laptops and BlackBerrys - have contributed to an increase in the organisation's desktop computing costs, from £500 or £600 to £1,750 to £2,000 per user, Bramwell says that the iPads have helped to improve efficiency and ease decision-making processes.

Among the 46 major IT projects that the Wellcome Trust delivered last year was the deployment of Microsoft Office 2010, an upgrade to SharePoint 2010 and a refresh of its finance and investment systems.

It also developed and launched its first data warehouse based on the Microsoft technology stack.

In addition, the Wellcome Trust carried out year two of its virtualisation plan - on HP blades and chassis - which means that its estate is now 72% virtualised. This has also helped it reduce the number of physical servers from 220 to just 50.

It has not virtualised its more than 1,000 desktops, though it is exploring the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology.

This year, the organisation plans to replace its network and continue with year three of the virtualisation programme, which will take it to just under 90% virtualised.

"At the end of the [financial] year [ended September 30] we'll have changed every piece of infrastructure. We also have to keep the business going at the same time. So that's my challenge," says Bramwell.

This story, "IT is victim of own success, says Wellcome Trust CIO" was originally published by Computerworld UK.

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