Data-as-infrastructure

“We are in unprecedented times”. Surely one of the most overused lines of 2020? But it is, of course, correct. We have lived through an event lots of us never believed we’d live through. And many things have changed forever.

The phrase certainly rings true in the world of IT. Digital transformation in enterprise was already moving along at a rapid rate before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, as many technologies become mission critical to operations, organisations are fast-tracking digital change programmes to stay agile and reimagine different ways of working.

Pressure on IT teams and infrastructures has never been higher, with business leaders expecting to have the capacity to manage this change. Most modern infrastructures will have been pushed to their limits as remote working became an overnight normal and demands on applications soared.

A new study from Aptum Technologies, the Canadian firm specialising in solutions for hybrid environments, found that between March and June – the peak lockdown phase in most countries – 38% of businesses scaled infrastructure to meet new levels of demand. Their survey of senior IT professionals also revealed that nearly half (48%) of companies adopted cloud solutions to deliver critical services.

“It hasn’t been a quiet time at all,” Alberto Da Anunciacao, Aptum’s Chief Infrastructure Officer, tells Digital Bulletin. “Businesses are adapting and really moving decisively. Decisions that probably would have taken months are being made in weeks. It’s a kind of speed that’s unheard of and leads me to believe there is going to be a huge amount of work compressed in a very short period of time.”

Alberto Da Anunciacao, Chief Infrastructure Officer, Aptum

It certainly hasn’t been quiet either for Da Anunciacao; he was only appointed to the job in April, right in the midst of the pandemic, and was forced to familiarise himself with a new role and organisation during full lockdown.

The former Bell Canada VP has been brought in to oversee Aptum’s global IT infrastructure and managed IT capabilities. The company offers a range of data centre, cloud, hosting and connectivity solutions to enterprise, as well as managed and professional services. It works with more than 3,800 customers across North America, Latin America and Europe.

Given his extensive infrastructure background, Da Anunciacao is well positioned to assess the impact of COVID-19 on IT provision. He says the principal challenge thrown up, especially by the shift to remote working, is distributed technology.

“Normally you’d have a centralised architecture and design around how you operate your business from a technology standpoint, but now you have a distributed architecture,” he explains. “With that comes a whole bunch of challenges, like ensuring your endpoints are secure and that data is being appropriately managed.

“But overall it’s a problem that can be solved and is being solved right now. Where we’re heading is that technology will find a way to solve these problems, and organisations are going to be far more comfortable going forward.”

When discussing the optimum IT infrastructures for this post-pandemic era of rapid digital change, Da Anunciacao outlines how Chief Information Officers (CIOs) must first ensure a “rock-solid” foundation which delivers constant availability, and one that can scale and manage complex workloads.

“As a CIO, you actually get fired for infrastructure, right?” he asserts. “It becomes so incredibly visible to your internal stakeholders and customers when it fails or doesn’t work that it’s a massive issue. It’s like electricity going out.

“Our view of the world is that you first have to make sure the infrastructure is rock-solid, whether that’s in our data centres, on-premise for customers or in the public cloud, and that you’re able to scale up and scale down across those environments. Once that’s done, it gives the customer the opportunity to start driving meaningful value.”

By introducing the prospect of “meaningful value”, Da Anunciacao brings the conversation around to data. He is a firm believer in the power of data-as-infrastructure, an idea that Aptum embraces in its client relationships and in its delivery of products and services.

Data’s impact on the world is well-documented – the World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025 463 exabytes will be created each day globally – but it has become increasingly clear that enterprises can only realise data’s potential if their infrastructures are built to suit.

Da Anunciacao believes that foundational data work, alongside the integration of tools to deliver business value, is essential. Only then, he says, will data become a real asset for CIOs going forward as they go about building larger and more agile environments.

“The next wave of activity and innovation is based on data. But in order to do all of that, you need to make sure that the data is there and available,” he explains.

“Firstly, you need to make sure that you’re protecting against a catastrophic failure, like ransomware. It’s vital to build a proper security infrastructure around that data. Then there are disaster recovery systems; they are all about how quickly and effectively you can get the business operating again [after a compromise], and minimising damage. Having a disaster recovery strategy is really no longer optional, given the value of the data.”

The next wave of activity and innovation is based on data. But in order to do all of that, you need to make sure that the data is there and available

Data is now precious to CIOs. Da Anunciacao goes one step further and emphasises that technology leaders should get their data strategies in place first before deciding on their setup – flipping the traditional method of only gathering data from existing infrastructures.

That strategy should then be tied into the wider business goals, as he goes on to describe.

“I’m thinking about being in our customer’s shoes,” he adds. “They have their business drivers, and they recognise that data is going to be critical. You’re going to need a strategy that looks like this: you’re going to run certain applications and data on bare metal in a facility, and then run certain things in the public cloud because the developers need access to microservices that are readily available on AWS or Google or Azure.

“Then you decide the type of scale you need, the type of recovery you need and all of these things. And then you’ve got to have a really solid data strategy that flows back from your business strategy. At that point, organisations will get into a good place.”

Underpinning any data-led strategy should be sound data governance. Key to ensuring the right data is available to the right people at the right time, data governance is now being embraced for the business value it delivers and not just so organisations comply with data regulations.

Da Anunciacao says this is an area Aptum has focused heavily on with its customers during what he terms the “data explosion” of recent years. According to recent research, companies that have comprehensive data governance programmes show more than 30% greater confidence in their data accuracy.

“Whether it’s storing, moving, managing or protecting that data in your infrastructures, you’re going to have to make sure you’ve got the right compliance strategies,” he says. “I think the governance around data is absolutely critical. But it’s not something for the faint of heart. If you want the right level of compliance, do you want to build that yourself, or do you want to seek out a trusted partner?

“We think there’s a real competitive differentiation to be had around this, which is why we at Aptum have really invested in that space.”

Data governance becomes even more important when automation and artificial intelligence are added to the mix. While Da Anunciacao admits that Aptum hasn’t built any specific products or services in this area, he is fully aware that many of its customers are beginning to tap into these advanced technologies for their data-led infrastructures.

“I see it as an evolution of where we’re at today. But it’s exciting. There’s a lot of data floating around but a lot of companies have not figured out how to leverage it fully. As that day comes, organisations that adopt these toolsets sooner are going to drive competitive value and competitive differentiation. Very few customers are leveraging that today but with the acceleration we’ve seen, I think this is going to happen in the next few years.”

Da Anunciacao is convinced by the capability of data to not only future-proof IT infrastructures, but to also help the economy emerge from the wreckage of the pandemic. He is adamant that businesses and sectors that had previously invested in data-led transformation are now a step ahead, evidence he says has been borne out in the stock market.

The example Da Anunciacao cites is Tesla, a data-first organisation that has seen its value rise significantly over recent months.

“Whether you love the company, hate the company, love or hate Elon Musk, the reality is that the company has logged billions of miles of data to improve their cars. And they’re using that to achieve autonomous driving quicker, as an example,” he concludes. “Why are they so ahead of the curve? Relative to the other car manufacturers, they have been able to build a digital-first strategy and are able to take advantage of the data.

“Our view at Aptum is companies that harness data and embrace digital transformation will ultimately outmanoeuvre their peers.”

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