By Roland Hambleton, CIO, Consultel Group

Undoubtedly 2020 was a year of challenges, change and opportunities. The IT industry has also seen significant shift, which has brought about greater reliance on telecommunication networks, reliable connectivity, always on infrastructure and business applications, and the ability to manage and support users from anywhere, swiftly and securely.

When I was recently asked by a customer “Where should I focus my IT Budget in 2021?”, I pondered this for some time. It is difficult to provide salient advice when such technology disruption is occurring, and the change expected to the way we will work in the future. The use of technology and the expectations of our employees, work colleagues, customers, supplier and business partners has never been greater.

I immediately sought guidance from Gartner, reading over their Top 10 IT Strategic Trends and the recently published “Top Trends Impacting IT Infrastructure and Operations for 2021”. These reports provide a good basis but did not provide enough context to answer the question posed. I sought advice from colleagues, peers, NetApp being a strategic cloud and data management partner and some “trusted” independent opinions. Here is what I arrived at.

Focus 1 – Flexible IT from Edge to Core

Building ridged IT silos in 2021 does not make sense. The ability to leverage infrastructure, edge computing, applications, business systems, and access these over any network connection should be a fundamental strategic objective. Having IT services which are portable, capable of rapid and dynamic scale (upwards and downwards) and harnessing commercial off the shelf business systems should be the core focus of all CXO’s and IT Managers.

Portability introduces a new dimension to the way we work, the people we can attract and how we build highly effective and optimised organisations.  2020 has seen the rapid, if not forced, growth in home working using remote technologies. This shift in workplace culture has provided a wealth of new opportunity to enterprising organisations. A business with their offices, based in a CBD location, told me that their talent pool is now Australia wide. Only in the last six months has the acceptance of remote working been adopted within his organisation. No longer do all staff need to be in the office each day and for some roles, almost never. Using remote working technologies together with applications which are easily deployed and remotely supported the company was able to onboard talent from regional centres, several hundred kilometres away from their CBD location. They achieved this seamlessly by harnessing the vast computing resources of both private and public cloud providers, in attracting regional talent, they have already seen a reduction in salaries and a more committed and contented worker. This has helped increase their brand position into regional and rural markets, gaining political support in these communities.  With the completed rollout of NBN and 5G cellular technologies now being deployed across the nation, connectivity, which was once a constraint, is no longer a barrier to building a highly agile and elastic workforce who can belong to an organisation no matter where they live.

Having a flexible edge to core allows organisations to rapidly build or reduce workforces. Those organisations which needed to engage workers at the start of the recent pandemic could not have done so without access to highly scalable infrastructure, a connected edge, and an elastic core.

Those organisations that were already cloud connected or cloud ready and using Software as a Service (SaaS) based business applications with subscription-based licensing and browser-based interfaces were far more adaptable to this change. Having portable, powerful edge computing devices allows for a seamless transition to a remote, efficient, and highly productive workforce. Similarly, companies; regrettably there were many; who needed to shed their workforce quickly were able to do this without huge financial impost to the business by reducing licencing volumes and the amount of computing required.

Legacy premises-based services with heavy client-based application severely hampered this flexibility and restricted an organisation to right size to meet the prevailing market conditions. CIO’s and IT Managers and their organisations who are not investing in cloud technologies will be left behind.

The move toward activity-based working, new ways of working, or remote working; whichever terminology you prefer; is now with us and will be a growth trend over the next decade. Embracing cloud and SaaS technologies; if not already; should be top of the list to drive organisational effectiveness and efficiency and to attract and retain the best talent.

Focus 2 – Technology that works – always

The bushfires in Australia in the summer of 2019, which made world news, reminded us of the importance of reliable IT and telecommunications to protect human life.  The recent Royal Commission into Natural Disasters has identified the critical need of having technology that can be relied upon. The fact is businesses and consumers expect systems to never fail. A recent report by ERS IT Solutions, an Irish based company, suggests that on average 545 hours of staff productivity is lost due to IT downtime. This can equate to financial losses; potentially loss of trade; and lost employee productivity. In 2018 the National Australia Bank (NAB) experienced a nationwide outage of its payment system in which rendered it’s Point of Sale banking services unavailable.  These outages are not cost free, with NAB shelling out $7.4 million in customer compensation and a damaged reputation with its retail traders. This prompted the NAB to establish a zero critical incident target. Despite this target, in Oct 2020, NAB experienced a nationwide outage of its internet banking services which again made headlines for the wrong reasons, prompting an apology from the bank to its customers. NAB is certainly not alone in experiencing service disruptions. In June 2020, the country’s biggest bank Commonwealth Bank Australia (CBA) experienced a similar outage which cost the bank up to $7.5 million after some customers went without payments through the weekend. CBA transferred $50 to the 150,000 customers impacted. These examples demonstrate the extreme expectations of the public and business for IT services such as banking to always work, and when they don’t, heavy costs can occur to compensate and maintain a loyal customer base.

With such a heavy reliance on technology, for trading, communications, and transacting; with no manual fall backs; the IT systems and underlying infrastructure must be designed to be reliant, highly fault tolerant, and have failover systems in place.  Once the dominion of Mission Critical businesses, such as Triple Zero and Emergency Services, all IT systems, whether they be consumer or business services are expected to be 100% available; system unavailability will otherwise risk brand reputation, impact customer confidence, incur financial loss, and lose loyal users. This means that organisations need to look at highly resilient and robust technologies with clear disaster recovery and business contingency plans (BCP).

While BCP planning within organisations is not new, looking at mission critical business operations is a good place to start. Identifying failure effects and undertaking criticality analysis to determine which services are mission or business critical and how they can be protected from failure. The focus should be on infrastructure availability for uptime as close to 100% as possible, high levels of application failover, increased and dynamic computing capacity, and managed security to protect all critical systems and components.  It is little wonder that CBA and its main rival Westpac are accelerating their migration to the cloud for their core business banking services, spending $500M in doing so. The Cloud provides extreme levels of availability; when compared to traditional on-premises architectures; provides elastic and on-demand computing power and can be coupled with a managed security solution to ensure protection of key and core assets. For Westpac adding SD-WAN technologies also brings the cloud closer to the edge and to its retail branch network.

All organisations, big or small, should in 2021 only be considering the cloud for their IT infrastructure. Spending money on premise-based solutions is wasteful, requires much effort to build and commission, needs ongoing capital investment, a larger inhouse support team, and yet falls short of providing an always available service, unlike cloud services.

Businesses which think and behave like those organisations which provide mission critical operations. Leveraging highly available platforms and systems, such as NetApp; and having a managed security service at its core, will be rewarded with highly regarded brand reputation, a satisfied customer base, and a market position which will be globally respected.

At Consultel Group we harness the innovation and leading technology from NetApp to enable our private cloud solutions.

Focus 3 – Use IT to do new things “better”

In my customer discussion, I was also asked “how do I use IT to make my business do things better and enable it to do new things?”. This is an age-old question and one I don’t intend to solve here, but when giving this some thought, automation technologies immediately come to mind. The evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies and how they can aid businesses in doing what they do faster, cheaper, with less errors, and without mass scale business process change can change how organisations leverage IT technologies to improve business productivity and financial returns. AI does not need to replace existing processes or people, it can coexist to improve decision making, assist with complex business activities, or help protect the safety and wellbeing of employees and customers.  In the health sector, AI is being used for early detection of illness or detecting pre-existing conditions. For example, deep machine learning is being used for genomic sequencing and genetic mapping. AI is being used to efficiently diagnose and determine symptoms, it is being used for radiology, developing medicines, and simulating treatments all of which were once only done by humans, at a much slower pace and with far greater levels of misdiagnosis and error. The use of AI in the management of the spread of Covid-19, the development and distribution of a vaccine, and having the population protected has been unprecedented. The health industry is a shining example of how the adoption of AI is changing the way in which it operates, improving the work of scientists, biomedical labs, pharmaceutics, and health practitioners.

In other industries, such as manufacturing, the opportunity to use AI to streamline production and to ensure products roll off the conveyor belt as they were intended, with lower defect rates and improved product traceability is also being implemented. This enables manufacturers to check goods as soon as they are produced to meet compliance and quality expectations, minimising product wastage and ensuring consumers get the product they expect, leading to high levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty.

For the travel and transport industry, AI can detect traffic volumes, patronage, vehicle type and many other attributes. Enabling real-time decisions on things like safety, usage, and space capacity such as carpark availability.

The adoption of AI will be profound over the next decade and all organisations should add AI to their roadmaps as they look for ways to improve and streamline operations and look for new ways to bring about innovation across their business.