CIOs can't dismiss data management in the digital era

CIOs are more than gatekeepers of technology, says CIO Brian Lillie. Now the goal is seamless data management inside and outside enterprises.

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Equinix CIO Brian Lillie knows about an always-on business, whose technology needs are driven by the consumerization of IT services.

Lillie, a panelist at the upcoming MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, says that consumerization and the immense influx of enterprise information have created new dictates for CIOs. He heads IT at the data-center colocation provider based in Redwood City, Calif., which has more than 100 data center facilities dispersed among five continents.

Brian LillieBrian Lillie

Lillie said that workers in a variety of industries expect an always-on technology infrastructure that allows them to communicate remotely, get data at a moment's notice, and collaborate seamlessly and securely in the cloud.

So, IT departments have to pivot to adjust in the digital era, he said. Trends like cloud computing and mobility now require IT, and CIOs in particular, to manage information within enterprises but also beyond companies' four walls, into the cloud and on mobile devices. IT departments have to manage that information continuum seamlessly for users while ensuring security.

Lillie also noted that CIOs have to do far more than just keep the trains running through information governance and rock-solid service-level agreements. They now have to find ways to make data secure, accessible and more meaningful when it's presented to executives. And cloud computing trends mean that many of the applications that house this information will be outside a company's perimeter.

"There is a whole new architecture to cloud-based systems that CIOs are going to have to wrap their heads around," Lillie said.

You may think everyone is just using Box ... but then you realize they are using 20 applications that carry various states of risk.

Brian Lillie

What is different about today's digital era in terms of data management ?

Brian Lillie: IT has been consumerized. Every single employee today is significantly more equipped technology-wise and more savvy technology-wise. And the technology in their hands creates more data, more information; it gives them access they have never had before.

I coach my kids' games. I've approved purchase requirements in the dugout. I've had to SMS a Tier I incident on the bench at a game. We are always, always on. And [if] you don't give users that access, there's significant blowback. Because their customers are digitally equipped like never before and savvy like never before, so it has made our jobs much more difficult but also much more interesting.

Does your industry magnify some of the data management trends we've been talking about?

Lillie: We have data centers in 34 markets. We have 1,000 carriers, almost 550 cloud service providers. When I talk about these digitally equipped and savvy employees that are consumers of enterprise information, that information is largely outside your enterprise. It's in the cloud, it's in Salesforce, Box, Workday.

Because the data has moved from inside your four walls to out in the cloud -- but not all of it -- you have to somehow seamlessly access information on-premises through firewalls, a VPN [virtual private network], but also in the cloud where all the data sits. And you truly want to make that seamless. That always-on, mobile, digital employee goes hand in glove with the cloud.

So, our challenge is, how do we make this architecture flexible and secure? CIOs are no longer the keeper of the keys, like the old days. So the question is how can I manage risk in a way that enables these digitally equipped employees to access the data, no matter where it is? But you still have to think seriously about security. How do you flow processes and strategy across a mobile workforce that has to access data on-premises and in the cloud?

Where do companies need to sit on the spectrum of open information versus security?

Lillie: Depending on the industry they're in, the penalty for risk will drive where they sit on that continuum -- whether they are in banking, insurance, healthcare, where it's highly regulated. Just think about the Target CIO: You have to protect customer data. You have to protect the jewels of the company, and you will be held accountable. Even if you don't have the funding, you still cannot abrogate your responsibility. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that you can't control it. You're trying to put your finger in to stop the leaks, but the leaks are everywhere.

You have to become service-oriented ... to the point where you don't have to worry about break-fix operations ... because you just have that nailed.

Brian Lillie

We use a tool from Skyhigh Networks, which shows which cloud services your employees are using and gives each a risk score. Nine is a bad risk score, and 1 is a really good one. You may think everyone is just using Box because that is the approved cloud storage vendor, but then you realize employees are using 20 applications that carry various states of risk.

These kinds of tools that are coming onto the market are helping CIOs say, 'How can I manage risk, and do we need to attach to all 20 of these apps, or can we just use the 1s and 2s and block the ones that are higher-risk?' Another tool gives visibility -- that one pane of glass -- to on-premises apps or cloud apps via a single sign-on. The tools are evolving to manage the growing complexity.

How do you present executives with meaningful data they can digest?

Lillie: We're doing some significant transformation with Equinix Cloud Exchange and API [application programming interface] management platforms that are tying systems together and customers with other customers. There are rich sets of information inside these systems and ecosystems.

But how do you translate that into meaningful information? That is the real challenge of the CIO. If you want global information so you can make global decisions, you need globally consistent processes. If one region calls a booking one thing, for example, and another region calls it another, and they're at different stages of the process, how do you communicate global booking? You can't, because it's inconsistent.

You have to start with data standardization and cleanup, identifying the key metrics that really matter. The CIO's job is to say, 'If you want to do a BI [business intelligence] rollout of a platform -- whether it's on SAP, Oracle, MicroStrategy -- without that underlying work done, it will just expose the warts in the transaction systems or the process.' There's structured data from transaction systems -- classic BI systems that are heavy around process, data, decisions and transaction-type systems. It takes leadership, business engagement, the CIO working with the C-level suite to have a consistent way to look at the data.

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Then there is this whole world of big data. There is information in unstructured data, for example. We have a big data platform on DataStax, an open source competitor of Hadoop, to collect network and power data to look at trends and what is going on around the world. That is completely unstructured data [that we can't put in a database to analyze].

And that is an interesting part of the CIO's role now, to make that platform [available]. And give users a suite of tools to go in and pull that data out. It's not IT's role to structure it but to create an environment for the business to work.

What are some of the most important things CIOs can do to deliver effective, actionable information?

Lillie: At a recent ServiceNow conference, the message from one presenter was, 'You have to become service-oriented and run IT like a business to the point where you don't have to worry about break-fix operations or service-level agreements, because you just have that nailed, that IT is running like the trains in Switzerland -- like clockwork.'

[Seamless operations] frees you up to have the mental bandwidth to focus on the value-added activities. And I would suggest that's bedrock to having the time and mental capacity to focus on things like innovation or business intelligence. That's the macro thing people have to do.

The next thing is, on the structured-data side, we have to do the heavy lifting to get the process, decisions, data and the transactional systems lined up to support an intelligence platform and a place where answers can be provided.

Another issue is how to present the data to your users. Data has to be mobile-enabled, a combination of push and pull, and you have to use a number of mechanisms to deliver that information, because no executive is created the same. I have some execs that want data every minute. They will guide the system and want to be in the details. I have other guys at the opposite ends of the spectrum, like, draw me a picture. Tell me the "So what?" and the "Why should I care?" You have to be ambidextrous and flexible and agile. Don't try and jam it down their throat in the format they can't receive, because communication is all about the receiver, not the sender.

This was first published in May 2014

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