Evolution of IT on display at ITEX

Cloud computing, mobility and consumer innovation were the hot topics at Computerworld conference and expo

‘Cloud computing is here to stay’. ‘Mobile is the future’. ‘Consumer innovation is outpacing business innovation’. ‘Embrace social media and new devices and enable your staff rather than block them’. These were some of the recurring themes at the ITEX conference and expo, held in Auckland recently.

Around 400 delegates attended the presentations, spread over five content tracks, and took part in roundtable discussions during the one-day event on Tuesday 23 November at SkyCity in Auckland.

International keynotes

Anil Sabharwal, Google’s head of apps product management in Asia-Pacific, talked about cloud computing as the platform of the future in the first keynote of the day. He sees four converging trends that will shape the future of the cloud: a tectonic shift to the cloud that will drive innovation; consumer innovation outpacing business innovation; mobile becoming the dominant access point; and the continued growth of social media.

“Social media is the fastest growing medium in the history of technology,” Sabharwal told the audience.

It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million people. Television took 13 years and computers took four years to reach 50 million. For Facebook, it took two years, Sabharwal said. He believes innovation is now part of everyday business and if you are not innovating, you are at a clear disadvantage.

In his keynote address Andrew Pickup, COO of Microsoft, Asia-Pacific, talked about the software giant’s take on cloud computing ‘Cloud Power’. Pickup described it as “cloud computing while maintaining the environment your users are used to”. Microsoft’s offering is building on existing investment and using existing tools, he said.

Pickup also mentioned some interesting statistics in relation to the cloud, for example by 2014 it is expected 50 percent of business devices will be smartphones and that, already, 84 percent of organisations have a mobile workforce.

James Canton, futurist, author and visionary business advisor, appearing by video, from San Francisco, provided his thoughts about the outlook for the internet.

In the future, businesses need to innovate, adapt or die. He calls this “innovation Darwinism”. Canton predicts that customers will drive this innovation and that customer-generated products and services will be huge.

“If you’re not listening, you won’t make it,” he said.

Canton also talked about the internet integrating with neurotechnology and becoming a “neuro-web – a thinking network”.

“We are building the next-generation net based on how the brain works,” Canton said. “We are programming the internet to be a self-leaning machine.”

By 2030, web capacity will equal that of the human brain, he predicted.

Canton also advised delegates to spend some time learning about industries outside their own space and see how you can leverage that in your business.

“If you are in healthcare, pay attention to what is going on in logistics and financial services. If you don’t know anything about gaming, maybe spend some time at tradeshows. Take a trip around the world, because what is happening in Mumbai, Taipei, London or Paris, may dramatically give you a competitive advantage that will change your mind-frame for business.”

Successful businesses of the future will be able to adapt quickly and continually innovate, he said.

Mobility – who will win?

A lively mobility roundtable discussion posed questions around why there is such an interest in mobile today and whether the app craze is a fad.

A panel consisting of iPhone app developer Peter Watling; Peter Mangin, CIO of Saatchi & Saatchi; Andy Shields, group IT manager of Beca; Mark Bishop, Windows phone business manager at Microsoft; and Aaron McDonald, market and channel manager at Gen-i, discussed who they thought would be the winners and losers in the future mobile market.

McDonald said the winners are going to be the companies that listen to their customers. “Understand the market, or you will lose,” he said.

Peter Mangin added that the smart organisations of the future will leverage mobility, but the brilliant ones will monetise it. Mark Bishop from Microsoft sees a number of players in the future market, with Microsoft definitely there because, “we have deep pockets and patience”, he said.

The line between private life and business life is blurring more and more, with smartphones having contributed to that. He thought the popularity of mobile was partly down to phones being a fashion statement and partly for allowing immediacy and instant gratification.

“Your phone has become part of your identity,” added Aaron McDonald.

IPhone app developer Peter Watling, known for his Bubblewrap and local weather and television guide applications, said Apple has turned the industry on its head. He is focused on the company with his app development, though Bishop sees a future where the most successful developers build apps across many platforms.

Andy Shields of Beca couldn’t care less about what phones looked like or what technology platform they belonged to. He said for him, and in many other enterprises, mobile is all about the business outcomes. Mobile phones help increase productivity at Beca, because faster communication and instantaneous responses means more work gets done onsite.

When staff started to bring in their own devices and asked to be hooked up to their email, Beca initially implemented a ‘no iPhone’ policy. However, some staff resented this policy and the organisation gradually realised it could benefit from embracing new technology.

“We decided to enable our workforce, in a secure environment, instead of blocking them,” Shields said.

The organisation is now nearly platform agnostic, he added.

“IT departments should be less concerned with blocking things and more concerned with enabling staff,” he said.

Beca’s journey to video-conferencing

On a personal level, Beca’s mobile solution has changed Shield’s life, he told the audience. He is based in the Bay of Plenty with his family and by utilising mobile technology, he can spend more time at home without compromising business results.

“I answer my desk phone whether I am in the office, working from home or from a hotel while on a business trip,” he said.

Shields also gave a separate presentation on Beca’s journey to next-generation IP video conferencing. The 2500-staff engineering organisation was already facing increased travel costs, while collaboration across many different locations was steadily on the rise. The company currently has projects in more than 70 countries.

“We wanted to collaborate more and be more efficient,” said Shields.

The organisation tried ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), but it proved difficult to use and expensive to operate, he claims.

“It never really gained traction within the organisation and the business leaders were not convinced of the business case,” he said.

An IP-based solution seemed a better option, but working against Shields’ team was the very traditional mentality of the business. The general approach was “why change something if it isn’t broken”, Shields said. However, things started to change. The internet started to gain acceptance as a research and productivity tool within the organisation, largely driven by email, he said.

Change driven by Generation Y

Another strong contributor to the changing climate is Gen Y, Shields said. Beca takes in a large number of graduates every year and they are avid users of technologies such as Twitter, Facebook and Skype, not to mention mobile phones. They expect to have these tools at hand at work, as well as at home.

“Some of the young guys don’t even use email. They ask to be contacted on Twitter,” he said.

Beca implemented an IP video conferencing system in 2007 and since then demand has kept rising, with the team having to increase the number of endpoints every year to keep up, said Shields. By 2009, video conferencing had become mission critical to the organisation. Earlier this year Beca integrated Microsoft Office Communicator (now known as Microsoft Lync) with the system, adding features such as instant messaging, VoIP and video conferencing inside the client software.

Beca uses video conferencing for meetings and document-sharing, but also remote recruitment and teleworking, he said.

Return on investment numbers are looking good – before 2006, the company spent around $360,000 on travel every month. Today, travel cost reduced directly by video conferencing usage is around eight percent, or 16 roundtrips a month, he said. Using video conferencing also helps Beca reduce its carbon footprint by 58 tonnes per month. ROI on the existing platform is expected in nine months.

Next year, the company is looking to do a complete network overhaul to further enhance the quality of the service. There is also going to be a huge drive towards integration with social networks, Shields said. The only ongoing challenge at the company now is bandwidth.

Private cloud benefits

In separate presentations Alex Cruden, IT&T manager at Baycorp, Australia and New Zealand and Barry White, group CIO of Allied Farmers, shared some insights on migrating to the private cloud.

Baycorp is using an IBM private cloud solution with some of the benefits being facilities management: “it is not our headache anymore”; on-demand computing that lets the organisation scale up and down as it pleases; disaster recovery capabilities; along with much improved collaboration across the business, Cruden said. The whole organisation now has access to the same data, regardless of location, which allows for complete trans-Tasman collaboration, he said. The private cloud has set the company up for future growth, such as moving some functions off-shore, easier expansion and the possibility to consolidate datacentres.

Bear in mind that some apps are not cloud candidates and are better off left on-premise, Barry White said in his presentation. Before embarking on the cloud journey, review all vendor relationships and SLAs. It could also be a good idea to invite both staff and vendors to workgroups in the initial stages. He also said there is no need to scrap existing processes.

80,000 attacks daily

Dave Wasley, head of technology, and Matt van Deventer, head of infrastructure at TradeMe, gave a sobering account of attacks on the online auction site. The popular site serves about 2000 pages per second and sends out around 50 million emails every month. The key challenge for the company is to keep an eye on the good traffic versus the bad.

TradeMe, Wasley said, is subject to 1.5 million security “events” daily.

“We have upwards of 80,000 attacks every day,” he said. “These span from SQL Slammer exploits, around 2000 every day, to bad URLs, where people try to craft a URL to find back doors and get through to the app. – We have 600,000 of those kinds of events every day.”

But more important to TradeMe is dealing with attacks on users.

“If people don’t trust the site and don’t want to use it, there is no point being around,” says Wasley.

Ten staff at TradeMe are dedicated to preventing fraudulent activities and attacks on users. Examples of potential attacks include shill bidding, where the seller works together with a fake bidder to hike the price up, Wasley said.

Examples of scams that have taken place locally are property and car scams. Fraudsters posted apartments for rent on TradeMe pretending to be landlords, collecting bond and rent in advance from victims. When the victims came to pick up the keys the fraudsters and the money were long gone.

Wasley also warned of identity theft, although this has not happened to TradeMe yet. This is a very elaborate job listing scam, he says. The fraudsters fly the job applicant abroad for an interview where they make an attractive offer. But they want the applicant to start straight away and for that reason they need bank account, passport and driver’s licence details. By the time the victim arrives back home, the fraudsters would have already taken out a credit card in the victim’s name, Wasley said.

ITEX Awards

The day finished with networking drinks, followed by an awards ceremony that recognised the best in IT business management.

Business Analyst of the Year, sponsored by Redvespa, was awarded to Shamendra Hurbuns, who worked for the former North Shore City Council. Finalists for the award were Fiona McIvor from Vero and Kerry Wills from Vodafone.

The judges said of Hurbuns: “Shamendra has excellent academic qualifications and a strong personal drive. He prefers to be in a role where he can innovate and that also provides him with strong personal growth opportunities. Shamendra’s approach to his BA role demonstrates a strong collaborative approach, a need to engage with people and take time to build a rapport and understand their needs and wants so he can work with them to deliver successful outcomes. Coupled with a strong business focus, Shamendra has a passion for delivering excellent results.”

IT Manager of the Year, sponsored by Potentia, was awarded to Ingrid Cronin-Knight from Gen-i. Finalists for the award were Ken Biswell from Redvespa, Richard Lockwood from ASB Bank and Colin Philp from Gen-i.

The judges said of Cronin-Knight: “Her energy was overwhelming — she set out to wow the judges and she didn’t misfire. Her ambition was contagious — she has clearly thought about her career path and how it can align with her personal belief system. The judges were impressed by her wanting to do an MBA with an international focus, to examine how different styles of leadership and management rather than simply accepting a NZ-centric style. We believe we will see Ingrid in a CEO role in the years to come.”

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