Top CIO Challenges: Cloud, BYOD, Big Data

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 07-30-2012

Top CIO Challenges: Cloud, BYOD, Big Data

The A-list panel of CIOs that Silicon Valley's venerable Churchill Club assembled July 24 in Palo Alto, Calif., hit on many of the trends that sit atop IT leaders' priority lists, including cloud computing and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon. The panelists -- Google CIO Ben Fried, Juniper Networks CIO Bask Iyer, PG&E CIO Karen Austin and Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell - all had compelling views on the topics.

But, the subject of how to extract value from data was top-of-mind for the two panelists from outside the tech industry-PG&E's Austin, and Wal-Mart's Terrell. Austin, in particular, faces a monumental uphill task. She joined PG&E in June 2011, less than a year after one of the utility's pipelines in San Bruno, Calif., exploded, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. Subsequent investigation exposed PG&E's antiquated data-management practices, an embarrassment Austin appears hell-bent on correcting.

"When I arrived, 90 percent of what we did in the field was on paper," Austin told the Churchill Club audience assembled at the Crown Plaza in Palo Alto. "That's an opportunity to innovate."

While she didn't elaborate on what forms that innovation might take, Austin said PG&E wants to tap its data to "figure out how our customers can save energy." The company's heaviest data flows are coming from two sources. First, there are those pesky paper records, which contain critical information about the conditions of PG&E's pipes. This information is needed in order to effectively run tests determining the maximum operating pressure of the gas delivery system. "There's a huge effort underway for us to clean and digitize (that data)," Austin said.

There also is abundant data being collected throughout the day by the smart meters PG&E has been installing feverishly over the past few years. According to a recent Oracle Corp. survey on the so-called "big data" problem, utilities executives report that they're collecting 18,000 percent more data from smart meters than they did from older meters. PG&E has been one of the most aggressive proponents of smart meters.

Given that kind of spike in data collection, it came as no surprise when Austin acknowledged that the issue of where to store all of that data is significant. PG&E doesn't have the necessary storage capabilities in house, and Austin said cloud storage vendors aren't a great option because their subscription fees represent the kind of ongoing operational expenses the company is looking to avoid.

Conversely, Wal-Mart isn't hung up on collecting and storing data, but like most companies, it's facing challenges when it comes to making use of its data. In fact, CIO Karenann Terrell went so far as to say that Wal-Mart and other large retailers were facing a "big data" issue before that terminology entered the IT vernacular.

Wal-Mart's Vast Data Challenge

Wal-Mart collects data on some 200 million customer transactions a week. Terrell said the company's "maniacal focus" on fully leveraging any investments in IT that are intended to enable the business means it's doing everything it can to use this vast pool of data to improve the shopping experience. And Terrell is well aware that Wal-Mart's rivals are doing the same thing. "There's a lot of money being spent in that space," she said.

As is the case for many companies, Wal-Mart's efforts on the data front are limited by the availability of talented data scientists. The company has been aggressively assembling IT talent at the San Bruno, Calif., facility that is headquarters for Walmart.com.

"The number of people who really understand the power of data and how to put it in order is very small," Terrell told the Churchill Club audience. "It's a new, emerging area that got hot fast."

How Google CIO Handles Cloud, BYOD

Other topics discussed by the panelists included cloud computing and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, both of which also can be labeled "new," "emerging" and "hot." But unlike the full charge into data analysis, panelists were a bit more tempered in their support of cloud services and employee-chosen devices.

Google's Fried made it clear that he has particular concerns about the Software-as-a-Service offerings that often serve as companies' primary foray into cloud computing. Fried said that the long list of SaaS vendors many large companies are building presents a collective risk. The resulting mish-mosh of systems that may or may not integrate easily exposes what he said is a widespread lack of good corporate practices designed to govern data.

Juniper Networks's Iyer echoed Fried's concerns about the cloud. Iyer stressed that he believes it makes more sense to vet competing cloud vendors and settle on a manageable list of standard services rather than letting employees choose their cloud resources willy-nilly. But those decisions, Iyer said, have to be made with user habits in mind.

Any service chosen to be the standard "has to be as cool and easy and secure" as anything employees might choose to use themselves, he said. "You can't give them a mandatory storage solution that takes four hours to copy a file."

Still, Wal-Mart's Terrell said companies may only go so far in trying to dictate what cloud services their employees use. "It's not possible to stay out in front of the most creative end user you have," she said.

Meanwhile, on the BYOD front, Fried said he will happily support whatever smartphone or tablet employees want. But, when it comes to employees bringing their own laptops, "I'm a big non-believer," he said. The combination of abundant native applications and data storage makes employee-owned laptops a bigger risk for enterprises, according to Fried.

Although he didn't address laptops specifically, Iyer said that a year ago he had a restrictive device policy in place that has since been replaced by a looser BYOD policy. The result? "Life is much better today," he said.

While the panelists primarily focused on the latest IT trends, an evergreen topic-that of IT-business alignment-reared its head. Austin chimed in at one point that she was seeing growing involvement of the business in IT and vice versa. That change was reflected in a decision to move PG&E's change management function from HR to IT.

Wal-Mart's Terrell offered up equally compelling evidence.

"We've had as much [IT staff] turnover into the business as we did externally two years in a row," she said, spurring hushed whispers throughout the audience. That shift, Terrell said, signaled that IT's internal business partners no longer possess an uninformed "just do it" mentality when it comes to IT projects. The resulting interactions between IT and the business have become more intelligent and reasonable.

Even so, the CIO's main raison d'être remains.

"A CIO's job when interfacing with the business is 99 percent taking what you think they should know and saying it in a way they can understand," said Terrell. "It's up to us to net it out for them."