The five minute CIO: Francis O’Haire, Data Solutions

3 Apr 2015

Francis O'Haire, director of Technology & Strategy at Data Solutions

“I believe the key tactic as always is to minimise the spend on ‘keeping the lights on’, and free up more budget for strategic projects,” says Francis O’Haire, director of Technology & Strategy at Data Solutions.

Data Solutions a leading Irish distributor for solutions in virtualisation, security and unified communications and has been supporting and serving the IT Channel in Ireland since 1991

The company finds solutions that address real market needs that deliver return on investment and increased efficiency at a lower cost to organisations via a partnership approach that has been developed over a twenty year period.

O’Haire has been with the company since its inception in 1991 and is responsible for Data Solutions’ product development including the identification and evaluation of new technologies.

With over 20 years’ experience in the IT industry, including the virtualisation, cloud, security and data communications fields, O’Haire is a technology evangelist and thrives on finding solutions that address real market needs and deliver return on investment, increased efficiency and lower cost to the end customer.

He is a graduate of DIT Kevin Street and holds numerous vendor qualifications.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Since we are an IT distributor, we have several different IT environments and separate on-going projects within each. Of course we have an IT infrastructure which supports our staff and day-to-day business, but we also have separate environments for activities such as product demonstrations and training.

We currently have two main IT projects underway to support our own business.  The first is a rollout of an enterprise mobility management solution to help make our staff more productive while on the move. The second is the implementation of a new financial system which will give us more up-to-date and accurate management reporting.

Our enterprise mobility management project, which involves rolling out Citrix XenMobile to all of our staff, will allow us to make all IT resources and applications available to them on any device, including the many they own themselves.

We do not have a strict policy on the use of personal devices and laptops since we can securely allow access, safe in the knowledge that corporate data does not leave our control.  We have not taken the approach of trying to do mobile device management as we don’t feel that is the right approach in dealing with personally owned devices.  Our current project will instead allow us to deliver windows apps, mobile apps, email and document sync in a secure sandbox on users’ devices.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

Our business is all about helping vendors to achieve faster market penetration, and all our systems must support that.

First to make accurate and timely information securely available to staff no matter where they are, so as to maximise the support we offer our vendor and reseller partners.

Reseller partners rely on us to respond quickly to their requests for pricing, product availability or product information and our IT systems need to support this commitment.

Our second is to provide a dynamic lab environment where we can showcase our vendors’ technologies and train our channel partners to install and support them.

Ultimately, our goal is to make selling our technologies as easy as possible for our resellers and to help vendors grow more quickly.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

We are a fast growing company with only one office at the moment but our IT infrastructure is more extensive than you might expect from a relatively small company.

This is because we not only need to support our own staff but also run a training centre and maintain a lab – which has received 300 end-user visits in the last five years – to demonstrate our vendors’ technologies.

Our internal IT runs across five physical servers, each of which runs virtual workloads, and then there are several separate appliances for firewall, authentication and telephony.

Our demo and training infrastructure then adds about ten more physical servers, which host many virtual machines in ever changing and evolving configurations.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

I believe the key tactic as always is to minimise the spend on ‘keeping the lights on’ and free up more budget for strategic projects.

It’s about identifying and adopting technologies which lower the level of complexity in the infrastructure and which in turn lower the cost of ownership.

Google, Amazon and Facebook have achieved this by radically simplifying their infrastructure and adopting a ‘software defined’ approach to everything from compute to storage and networking.

I believe we need to look to these web-scale companies for inspiration and stop throwing good money after bad by continuing to pump budget into legacy architectures which need constant oversight.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

We have ambitious growth plans and our systems need to facilitate this. I am constantly striving to make our IT environment as simple and flexible as possible seeing as we don’t have dedicated IT staff.

So far, virtualising servers and desktops has had the most positive impact in achieving that goal.  The next step will involve making our lab and training environments easier to provision and manage by introducing as much automation into the process as possible.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We do not outsource, but we do not dedicate staff to IT either. We leverage our pool of highly skilled engineers who are primarily here to support our resellers with our vendors’ technologies.

“Rather than being dedicated to babysitting our own IT, our engineers are far happier getting stuck into the latest technologies with our partners on larger customer sites.”

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I am not qualified any more to get involved in the deeply technical side of things and thankfully have a fantastic team of experts in the company to handle that.

My own role is primarily focused on finding and then nurturing the growth of new technologies out through our channel partners.

Simplifying our IT means that more of my time can be spent driving the growth of Data Solutions and our partners.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Apart from the challenges around the growing complexity of IT, which is thankfully now being addressed by various disruptive new technologies such as Hyper-Convergence, the other big challenge is cyber-security.

In a world of cloud, mobility, social media and big data – or as IDC says: ‘The 3rd Platform’ – ensuring the security of corporate information is a huge concern.

Our own approach is to embrace technologies such as mobility and BYOD by ensuring the security of our data on any device without having to worry about managing the device itself.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

As a sales and marketing focused but technology enabled company, the ultimate measurement of how well IT is performing is in our P&L. We run 150 marketing campaigns per year, but we need to track and measure everything we do.

That said, we do need to monitor the more technical aspects of day-to-day performance as well, and for this we use various tools specific to the different technologies we use. For instance our virtual desktop environment is monitored using Citrix Edgesight.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

I think there are always areas for improvement.  I would certainly like to improve the processes involved in provisioning our lab and training environments.

I would like to bring a lot more automation and cloud methodologies into the process.  We already have the technologies within our vendor portfolio, from software defined storage and networking, to cloud platform.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

We have several projects scheduled during the year around building new demo labs and technology workshops.

This will include labs to help companies explore and evaluate software defined networking, hyper-converged infrastructure and flash optimised storage.

We also intend to expand upon our existing program of Hacking Workshops which we deliver as free training throughout the year to our Secure Computing Forum delegates.

The next phase which will follow on from this year’s SCF on 14  May will focus on the defence side of the equation.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years