The five minute CIO: Jerry Sweeney

23 May 2014

Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Cork Internet eXchange

Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Cork Internet eXchange (CIX) data centre, which is doubling in size, talks about why he’s still a hands-on manager, how he competes with larger rivals and who makes decisions about outsourcing.

What does a typical day look like for you: are you very hands-on, or is it much more of a management role where you work closely with the team to deliver IT to the business?

Cork Internet eXchange operates a 24 x 365 service. Because we have only 14 staff, everybody is hands on. I work my shifts like everybody else. I do a disproportionate amount of sick and holiday cover. I practice what the HP founders, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, used to call MBWA: management by walking about.

CIX’s job in a very real sense is keeping the lights on – it runs part or all of the IT department for many different customers. What kind of initiatives do you use to manage the infrastructure, and are there any you’re particularly proud of, that use technology in a smart way to make life a little easier?

We have a proprietary software platform that manages our IaaS and it is our SaaS solution. We call this CloudCIX and it is the DNA of our business. It does everything except wash the cups in our canteen.

It is integrated with OpenStack so that customers can log in and configure their own cloud infrastructure. Customers can consume services via our API. Examples include financial transactions or to manage time series data. We eat our own dog food and run our entire business on CloudCIX, including ticketing, billing, asset tracking and so on. Customers eat our dog food and use our software themselves. We have four full-time developers working on CloudCIX development.

Data centres have to employ a kind of ‘build it and they will come’ business model: how have you coped with that, from a budget point of view?

Cork Internet eXchange is a business unit of a Cork business that began trading in 1980 and had a significant balance sheet, including ownership of the building, before beginning operations. The data centre was opened in March 2008 and the company has been upgrading and extending the facilities ever since. The company did not require significant borrowings to develop. This enabled us survive the lean years after start-up.

When you’re tasked with managing the IT of many different organisations and not just your own, does that make it more important to have strong, repeatable processes? If so, which ones do you use and why?

Cork Internet eXchange is an ISO 9001-certified company. We are highly procedurised. I am an Uptime Institute Accredited Tier Specialist and several senior managers have undertaken ITIL foundation training.

What are the key metrics you use to determine whether your IT is delivering the service that it needs to?

The No 1 metric for a data centre is uptime for the critical services: power, connectivity and cooling. Once the data centre is up, then we are focused on keeping individual customers up.

From a technology standpoint, what has been the biggest change since CIX first started in 2008, and how have you managed the change?

In 2008, virtualisation was an embryonic trend. Today, the market is going beyond virtualisation to public and private cloud infrastructure.

Has that made your job easier or more difficult?

Cloud computing required the development of a lot of new skill sets. However, we see this trend as an opportunity to add value for our customers.

What’s the biggest challenge facing CIX and how important will technology and IT management be in addressing it?

Our biggest challenge is business-related. We are competing with AWS, Google and Azure. We are three orders of magnitude smaller than our competitors. Technical skills and business agility are our tools of attack and defence.

What’s the worst news someone running a data centre can get, and how would you respond?

An interruption to power, cooling, or connectivity is the worst possible news. We have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan that divides actions into customer contact and technical corrective action.

IT managers always used to get accused of being ‘server huggers’ and wanting to see their equipment in their own comms room. Have you noticed that attitude change with your customers?

Absolutely! For example, during the ESB strike threats in November, we saw an increase in RFQ activity. Also, during a major flooding event in Cork a few years ago, we had a customer contact us as the water reached their downstairs offices. By the following morning, their servers were located in our racks and all services were running.

Do you find the conversations you’re having are with senior management rather than IT departments? And if so, to what extent does the language and nature of the conversation change as a result?

In our experience, the decision to go with co-location rather than in-house is never an IT department decision alone. The actual parties involved depend on the size of our customer and the criticality of the business. For very large customers, negotiations involve purchasing, legal and IT departments. For SME customers, it is senior management and IT personnel. For start-ups it is always the business principals that we work with.

What was your take on the revelations by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden last year, and have you been affected either positively or negatively from the fallout?

Snowden, WikiLeaks and NSA (US National Security Agency) spying don’t seem to be the big issues worrying our customers. Our customers are not worried about what governments are doing. Our customers are worried about commercial leaks of customer data, including credit-card details. Customers are using our experience and knowledge to help them secure their networks from cyber-criminals. We are a Palo Alto partner and we offer managed firewall services to customers.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic