In the mainstream

4 Jan 2010

When it came to setting up an IT system for a brand-new company, Mainstream Renewable Power’s CIO and head of information services John Shaw decided to go with just three main suppliers. It’s all about simplification and consolidation, he tells GORDON SMITH.

Consolidation has been an IT industry byword for much of this decade, and John Shaw has taken this to its logical conclusion. He uses a single software suppl-ier, a single hardware vendor and a single communications company to run a company with a global footprint and multimillion-euro IT spend.

It helps that Mainstream Renewable Power, the company he works for as CIO and head of information services, didn’t even exist this time two years ago. Needing to ramp up quickly was a factor in deciding on a small pool of vendors.

“My role was all about initially creating a strategy to deliver rapid, tactical success – get us the systems and the connectivity to get the business up and running. So the first year was quite intense with the company,” he recalls. “In terms of how we went about that, I focused on some very simple principles: if it’s software, it’s Microsoft; if it’s hardware, it’s Hewlett-Packard (HP); and if it’s communications, it’s Eircom. So we partnered very closely with those three organisations,” he says.

A brief explanation for that rapid time frame: Mainstream is the latest venture of former Airtricity CEO Dr Eddie O’Connor and corporate-finance manager Fintan Whelan, and it has designs on being a global player in the sustainable-energy sector. Its board includes chairman Fintan Drury; former head of Centrica Sir Roy Gardner; Brendan Halligan of Sustainable Energy Ireland; and Mark Brown of Barclays Capital.

Mainstream’s core business is developing, building and operating wind, solar-thermal and ocean-current plants. A business-to-business play, the company deals with other energy utilities rather than selling directly to customers. Since February 2008 it has established offices in Berlin, Chicago, Cape Town, Dublin, Glasgow, London, Santiago and Toronto.

Setting up systems Shaw joined in September 2008 and was confronted with establishing physical connectivity between Mainstream’s sites to enable email, videoconferencing and voice conferencing. After that, his remit was to look at the company’s business processes and how we would implement best practices around document management and finance in particular.

His background in major multinationals – he has had senior IT roles at Wyeth, Accenture and GE Plastics – made him a natural fit for the fledgling company.

“I guess I brought to the table experience of global organisations that were mature; that had mature IT strategies that we could rapidly adopt and adapt to Mainstream,” says Shaw.

He works on a daily basis with Mainstream founder Eddie O’Connor and participates in staff meetings even though, from an organisational standpoint, he reports to the CTO. In turn, four managers report to the CIO’s office, with responsibilities for applications services, programme and process, infrastructure services and client services respectively.

Mainstream’s current IT budget stands at around €2m per year, on top of €5m invested at set-up time. By Shaw’s estimation, this is half what it would have cost to source best-of-breed technology from a slew of different vendors. “From a licensing perspective, from an implementation perspective and then from an ongoing cost-of-ownership perspective it’s cheaper,” he says. “You’ve got to look at it from the perspective of systems availability, change management, security management and single-user identity management, and it’s cheaper. You get all this productivity down the line. If you choose to measure it objectively, it is a far cheaper proposition with Microsoft’s interoperability vision to choose 18 products from it than to go for 18 different vendors.”

This thinking wasn’t forced on Mainstream by outside factors such as the economic crisis, adds Shaw. “There’s no doubt about it, we wanted to build something that was cost-effective from the start but we also had a blank canvas to work with, so Eddie O’Connor gave me a lot of latitude to look at all of our options and think it through.”

Shaw’s decision is maybe all the more surprising given his 20-year IT background, as he has been around long enough to remember when Microsoft wasn’t perceived as a credible player in the enterprise software space. “In my previous career, we would have had a best-of-breed strategy in each company. I didn’t perceive that Microsoft had this massive potential,” he acknowledges.

Far more than cost, interoperability is the real reason why Shaw believes there’s such a compelling case for the single-application vendor strategy. “The fact that you can seamlessly integrate SharePoint with Outlook, with Dynamics, with OCS [Office Communications Server] means that you avoid a lot of confusion, cost, risk, downtime and remediation. Also, when you go to do any upgrades you know that Microsoft has already checked out all of the permutations and combinations of that product set. If you can imagine a matrix of 18 x 17, every intersection on the matrix is a potential point of failure. But if you’ve got it all from Microsoft and you have premier support from Microsoft, you get that massive uplift effect that would be very expensive to get with 18 different vendors.”

Although Mainstream currently employs just 100 people, its global ambitions mean it can pitch itself as an enterprise customer to Microsoft, with all of the support and high-level access that confers. Shaw has taken the very same approach with the other two strategic suppliers, HP and Eircom.

It uses a wide range of services from Eircom, which in turn partners with Orange for some elements of the wide area network beyond Ireland. Eircom manages Mainstream’s voice, video and data networks globally, along with its secure firewall and secure remote access. The telco also takes care of Mainstream’s disaster-recovery hosting.

On the hardware side, all of Mainstream’s laptops, workstations, printers, servers, storage and tape backup devices are exclusively from HP. “You could say laptops are a commodity – and they certainly are – but if you bundle them in with all the other components and then you go to HP with a compelling argument to say ‘we want an enterprise relationship with you’, they’re not going to treat you as a commodity player,” Shaw reasons. In addition, Mainstream’s primary data centre is with HP, with a global 24/7 service desk managed by the IT giant at its facility in Leixlip, Co Kildare. Mainstream’s primary data centre is at Citywest and its backup data centre is with Eircom in Clonshaugh, both in Dublin.

The nature of the relationship in all three cases means it is a long-term plan, adds Shaw. “They know we’re with them for the long haul. It’s a mature relationship in all three cases. It’s not a parent-child relationship, it’s adult to adult. We’re not afraid to challenge the performance or the price and they’re responsive to that. It’s a partnership but they know they have to demonstrate value to Mainstream in terms of reliability, service availability and strategic direction. We want direct access to their roadmaps from each of them, and we’ll stay current with those. As they evolve, we’ll evolve,” he says.

DSS, the Irish IT services provider, is the ‘friendly face’ of the three key vendors and works directly with Mainstream in a project-management capacity. Having initially come on board to roll out client equipment, DSS then won the contract to supply much of the global infrastructure for Mainstream in a deal valued at €2.4m. DSS’s existing relationships with Microsoft, HP and Eircom helped swing the argument, and Shaw points out that this too is a partnership arrangement rather than a standard reseller contract. He stands over his decision to opt for an indigenous IT firm to manage the project rather than one of the possibly more obvious multinational consultancies.

“I think the bottom line is DSS’s relationship with those three companies is so good, its knowledge of the products and how they work best is so good that its track record and the skills of its people precedes it,” says Shaw. “I’d worked with DSS over the years in other organisations and seen how they competed against the best and won contracts with those large organisations.”

Desire for efficiency

Shaw makes no claim to reinvent any wheels, happy to leave the technology innovation to others. “What we find time and again is we’re simply implementing solutions that were figured out elsewhere. There’s nothing new under the sun in what we’ve been doing. What’s innovative, I suppose, is that we’ve sought to strategically partner at the enterprise level.” There’s a lot of talk in the industry about utility computing and the desirability of being able to turn IT on and off seamlessly. To Shaw’s way of thinking, coping with a raft of different solutions mitigates against achieving that aim. “At one level, IT is a utility but if the utility is unstable you cannot get the higher order of benefits. We differentiate ourselves by looking at how we can replicate projects efficiently.”

That desire for efficiency is evident in Mainstream’s use of SharePoint for document management and Dynamics AX for ERP, both of which went live this past summer. SharePoint in particular is essential to Mainstream’s plans. The company uses a wide range of document types consisting of maps, proposals, signed-off drawings or design documents, technical specifications, electrical drawings, topologies of various parts of the world, in addition to signed contracts and agreements. Executing a renewable-energy project successfully and documenting it in SharePoint allows Mainstream to learn how to rapidly execute other projects in a similar way, which Shaw believes is a competitive differentiator.

“If you were to do that in a paper-based perspective, you would always be out of date, you would always be struggling and a lot of time would be wasted. So if you follow the documents, you see the compelling need for a document management system and certainly SharePoint fulfils that objective,” says Shaw. He’s especially keen on the tool’s collaboration and search functions, as well as the ability to see who has been editing a document or which employee currently has it under their control for contribution.

“By having a single version of the truth you also have reduced stress in the organisation because people are going to meetings knowing that what they’re looking at is the most current and accurate version of a project status or of an operating plant status,” says Shaw.

“By systemising this and automating it with SharePoint, you massively reduce the workload and the pain of running our business. By having the strong integration with Outlook and Microsoft Exchange, the abil-ity to share calendars and be able to identify who’s available at any point in time for collaborative calls using Office Communicator – all of these integrate so seamlessly that it takes away a lot of the wasted effort to make decisions.”

Shaw points out that SharePoint is highly configurable, so it’s not as if it needs to be used as it installs out of the box. “If you need something you believe requires extra customisation, you have to seriously question why Microsoft with 350,000 employees and US$8.5bn in R&D didn’t pick up on that before you did. Are you truly that different to the rest of business that you need this thing? It’s down to how you use the Lego rather than needing a different coloured Lego block,” he reasons.

Shaw takes the analogy of the motor car’s early development to illustrate his point, as he observes how Henry Ford’s systemised car manufacturing, transformed the concept of the car and differentiated his company from competitors by having standard operations. “You can achieve an awful lot as a business by simplifying and standardising those things that are not differentiators for you, freeing you up to work on the things that truly are,” he concludes.

By Gordon Smith

Photo: Mainstream Renewable Power’s CIO and head of information services John Shaw.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic