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A Mad, Mad World

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 09-04-2007 Print

A Mad, Mad World

Exhibit A in the case against complexity is globalization. Multinational businesses are dealing with multiple time zones, languages and regulations. And the worst offender is outsourcing, which, while theoretically reducing costs, complicates operations and management exponentially.

"We've got geographical complexity," says Kevin Bott, senior vice president and CIO at Ryder, the $6.5 billion transportation, logistics, and supply chain company. Ryder does business in the U.S., Canada, Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America. It has data centers in five locations, and an IT staff of more that 500 supporting 100 core applications.

Bott has gotten the company's infrastructure concerns under control by consolidating servers (using virtualization) and centralizing all billing and negotiation with vendors. Now his most pressing concern is supporting Ryder's application portfolio across the world. "The application side is the next big challenge," Bott says. "We've got some older systems, some of which were made decades ago, all custom built." To reduce complexity, the company buys off the shelf whenever possible to replace an existing application.

But because of the specialized nature of the business, there's not much shrink-wrapped software that suits its needs. "We've been going offshore for some custom development, but communications is an issue." To mitigate the communications difficulties, Bott has taken to managing offshore development projects iteratively, insisting on rapid development cycles and additional checkpoints along the way.

The other major complication for CIOs has been compliance. And in no industry has the burden of regulation been more onerous than in healthcare. "Healthcare has got to be the most complex industry in our economy," says Lynn H. Vogel, vice president and CIO at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a 17,000- employee research and treatment center run by the University of Texas. "And when they say CIOs need to understand the business, what if the business is medicine, and it deals on the molecular level?"

Vogel has taken the challenges in stride, but when it comes to storing and protecting patient records in accordance with HIPPA regulations, things can get complex. "The sequencing of the human genome just made things infinitely more complicated," says Vogel, who recently doubled the center's supercomputing capacity to 1,000 processors. The center calculates radiation doses, runs treatment simulations and performs a host of other functions previously unimaginable. It's another example of IT keeping up with, and at times enabling, an increasingly complex world. "Five years ago, you never could have imagined these things being possible," Vogel says.

MD Anderson also runs the single largest CT scan imaging center in the world. It produces 700 magnetic resonance images a day and stores more than 260 million images (all replicated for disaster recovery purposes.) The center has 700 terabytes of patient data, and expects to have a petabyte by the end of next year. All that data must be saved and protected. And according to HIPPA rules, the center doesn't own the data on the disks, it just owns the disks. In attacking the costs that threaten to overwhelm an operation of this magnitude, Vogel has turned to--what else?--technology. Virtualization has helped MD Anderson limit the number of servers and storage disks it needs to save and process the massive quantities of data it collects and produces. But the new technology, while a lifesaver in some respects, also adds layers of complexity. "As marvelous as virtualization is in terms of allowing flexibility to take things in and out," Vogel says, "it creates management overhead, and it takes people to do it."

In a stark reminder that even the most advanced automation requires people to manage it, Vogel has been steadily adding staff to keep the storage environment under control; in fact, he now has three fulltime employees who do nothing but manage storage. "At the end of the day, can you really do things without people?" Vogel asks. "The bottom line is, as things grow in complexity, you need people to manage it."


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