The five minute CIO: Anil Singaraju

2 May 2014

Anil Singaraju, CTO of Diona

Founded in 2012, Diona isn’t weighed down by legacy tech. Its CTO Anil Singaraju tells us why this makes its IT easier to manage and helps keep the company’s focus on product innovation.

Diona provides supports to government social security, social services and health systems.

Can you put in context how extensive Diona’s IT operations are, and how complex is the infrastructure that you manage?

Essentially, our IT infrastructure is quite simple because we are completely based in the cloud. Within our offices, we don’t own any physical servers, we have wireless access in all of our offices. We use Amazon, and Rackspace and Microsoft and those kinds of providers. So to answer your question, it’s quite minimalist.

That sounds like an advantage, to have such ‘light touch’ IT to look after?

It’s a huge advantage; we are a company delivering mobile solutions based on evolving technology. When we started, one of my key areas of focus was to leverage technologies in the cloud to our advantage, given that we knew when we started the company that we were going to have people across geographies, and we needed to give them access. It made the most sense to do it that way.

I have dual roles: I’m also CTO in charge of our product. So to be very selfish, (laughs) I didn’t want to spend time administering a load of servers in various locations.

Diona has operations spanning from New Zealand, through India, to Ireland and on to the US. But it sounds like you’ve removed most of the challenges in managing that from an IT perspective. Were there any at all?

We picked our cloud platforms very carefully, we picked things which you expect: for the providers to keep them up and running with high availability, and quick response times.

Secondly, we have outsourced our IT management to a third-party company, and they look after dealing with Microsoft, Rackspace or Amazon as needs be, but to tell truth, we’ve had very few incidents.

To give an example, we moved our company name from Diona Technologies to Diona, and we did the whole transition: all of our domains, our email, and Yammer, which we use for internal staff communication – all of that together took us less than two weeks, with no interruptions. We had nobody off email during that time. In my view, that’s what you want from cloud-based systems.

To tell the truth, I didn’t know it was going to be that smooth. All credit to the guys who put those systems together. So to answer your question, the challenges were very few.

We give every person in the company the same kind of laptops, so we don’t have multiple versions of the same kind of hardware. Again, in terms of maintenance, it brings down the complexity. Our challenges now are the likes of new people getting started up on Microsoft Lync.

Is this as close to an ideal state of IT as it’s possible to get?

In my view, yes. Our two policies were: no physical infrastructure to be maintained, no wires in the office, and we wanted the tools to be available through mobile devices. As long as our choices met those criteria, we went with it. And, touch wood, so far it’s been a very pleasant experience. I can’t think of anybody’s productivity going down because of IT issues. I think this is the way to go.

This week, Diona announced that it’s recruiting new staff; given what you’ve told us about how your IT is set up, I’m assuming it doesn’t matter whether that was 40 or 80 new employees?

From June 2012 to now, we’ve gone from three to 95 people in eight countries, and there isn’t any overhead in terms of bringing somebody new on board. From a cost benefit point of view, I don’t buy 100 licences for Microsoft Office 365; I buy them as the employee comes on board, so you are starting the clock on cost from the day people join.

It doesn’t matter when they start, we go to our key systems – Office 365 and – and then they get their laptop, then click a button and off they go. It takes less than half a day for people to get up and running on our IT systems.

Given that you’re basically treating IT like just another utility, how does that affect Diona’s approach to IT strategy: is technology just for keeping the lights on, or can it help you innovate?

We have services teams all over the world: a product team in three locations, and all of them collaborate on a daily basis to develop our brand-new product. So the guys in the US, who are our business people, are typing in a business requirement, and a guy in Dublin watches them as they type. This is real-time collaboration.

We also use a couple of videoconferencing tools. That would have taken me a lot of investment and work to put it in place if we did it all with our own infrastructure. It gives us that extra edge in terms of how we collaborate. For argument’s sake, I could hire a developer in Portugal, and he would work exactly the same as anyone we have working in Ireland. It gives you that option.

When we started this kind if strategy in 2012, you still have your little apprehensions, but once you get to a certain stage, you think, ‘this is it’. Every product-related tool we use is in the cloud, and we actually use a cloud-based tool for accounting, Intuit Quickbooks.

With all that’s happened over the past year around the cloud and monitoring, do you have any concerns about the security of your data?

Not really. The kind of SLAs and security and privacy that the high-end providers have are really adequate for our needs. As an additional step, we back up the core data that we have on the core systems to a drive in our office. In general, for somebody to hack into a little server in my office is much easier than to hack into an Amazon server, which goes through multiple levels of protection.

In your own role, are you very hands-on with IT, or is it much more of a management position where you look to delegate to a team that delivers IT to the business?

I was administering every single system we had myself until about four months ago. But then we reached 80 people and I have a day job to do (laughs). We brought in a company which gives us three levels of support – someone based in our office and two other levels of support.

It took me a long time to find an IT management company to deal with services management in the cloud. It took me about six months. We brought in six or so. You just have to go through cycles of that. One company had experience in managing exactly the type of systems we use.

My core expectation of them is to do the day-to-day light touch management of the systems. I’ll be involved in the choice of the systems but implementing them will be their book. I do want to be fully hands off in a few months.

What are the key metrics you look for, to ensure the business is getting the level of IT service needs?

The one single metric that matters is availability of these services around the clock. The kind of service level agreements that we have are 99.9pc uptime and for the most part, we have seen that. In our business, we are essentially going 24 hours, all the time. We have not seen any difference in the speed of access: New Zealand is the same as the US.

When you do your cloud surveys, you need to be mindful of the fact that the majority of people are in the same hemisphere. Putting a system in a data centre in Hong Kong and getting people in India to access it is a no brainer.

A key parameter is accessibility through mobile devices. We picked a conferencing system called Blue Jeans – you can do it on everything from a mobile to a large Cisco videoconferencing room, all at once. You are going modern and you gave a fallback if you need to. So in my view, it has really worked out very well.

From the perspective of delivering IT to Diona as an organisation, what’s the biggest challenge you face right now?

The only real challenge from a strategy point of view is to look very, very carefully at the tools we choose, to meeting all of those requirements I talked about before. Like I said, we have physical offices across so many locations and we have been able to work together as a company for the last two years.

Will you be spending more, less or about the same on IT this year compared to 2013?

It’s slightly more than that, but when you get servers and product development and you need test servers, demo servers, then that cost goes up – you might have 10 people working on a project but 20 servers, so that is a bit of an unknown. Then we may put up a couple of servers on Amazon to do work for a customer …

But from a productivity tools standpoint, (the cost) pretty much follows the number of people that we have.

With your own time freed up from having to worry about IT service to the business, does that leave you more free time to focus on what the business actually does?

I would say what you just said is absolutely true. We are looking at IP-based telephony, which could be an additional tool for communication. But other than that, I am fully focused on getting the best products we can do, out in the marketplace.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic