At The Studio, Mark Chillingworth, regulator Moderator for HotTopics.ht and Online Editor for FT Live, hosted the debate Automation and Architecture the Future, all about technology architecture and how leaders approach it. He was joined by technology leaders Cornelia Schaurecker, Juan Villamil, Nick Reeks and Oliver Cronk, who each compared and contrasted their efforts to evolve, adapt and protect their technology infrastructures over the course of highly unpredictable 18 months.
These leaders also hail from a wide range of sectors, from mechanical industry to higher education, and the scope of the conversation therefore meant we heard lessons from data and AI capabilities, cloud migration, SAAS vendor management and much more. Read the write-up of the roundtable below for a quick summary of the main points, or watch the roundtable, above, by signing in.
Mark kicked off the debate by asking Nick Reeks of Tata Steel, how he has managed to keep up the resilience of the business via its infrastructure.
“We have a lot of installations that are decades old, so there are quite a few weeds still in there I have to admit,” said Nick. “That was a reality check for us and we began to think about how one plans for future implementations. We moved to a platform-centric model with SAAS capabilities and tools. That helped because it created a clean sheet, if you will, allowing us to have control of what we connected, plus support from vendors means we don’t make the same mistakes as before.
“Our shift to Cloud was also a watershed moment. We looked at our on-premise analytics capabilities and they were not up to scratch, so Cloud platform service capabilities gave us the flexibility to respond to business needs.”
For Tata Steel, those business needs range from scaling operations to improving visibility across its large sites. The company have invested in sensor technology to improve that, and the analytics it receives from these points are aggregated in their new Cloud platform, making Nick’s job of improving the flow of information that much easier.
Over at Vodafone, Cornelia’s data and AI team have been on a similarly busy journey.
“It’s amazing what teams have been able to do in the last two years,” she said. “Our infrastructure needed to have the right capabilities for us and our clients during the rapid shift to remote work, and Cloud was an enabler of that.
“For example, within the first weeks of the pandemic, we were asked to deliver anonymized, aggregated insights for a couple of institutions, so they can see the movement data, and we had to build a platform from scratch within days. That’s why it was necessary we had the right structure to cater for clients.”
“The change in work structure was forced upon us,” said Juan, reflecting on the tumultuous period of March 2020 for Imperial College London, and indeed the UK.
It did, however, encourage a wilder transformation than even the institution could have hoped for.
“We had no structure to our technology architecture so for the first time we built a strategy around it. We looked at the building blocks necessary to create the technology architecture, what the digital experience would be for students and faculty members. That forced us to consider the enablers of those blocks, like data. How do we find that data and make order from chaos? How do we integrate systems that enable research, whilst also not ordering too much because we are fully aware there is a creativity in chaos and a creativity necessary for research.”
Nick agreed that a lot of businesses have re-engaged with their technology architecture—but some were doing so well before the pandemic. Tata Steel, he reported, did a lot of upfront work between 2015 and 2017 to plan and test for their inevitable shift to the Cloud.
It wanted to build a SAAS-first model, guarantee on-premise configuration for legacy data and move from there. These became central tenets to the business strategy, and laid the foundation for how Tata Steel and its technology teams engage with the IT structure and connecting tissues.
For Nick, though, the challenge around architecting for the future of technology architecture lies in the working methodologies of its technology architects.
“Architects work in a specific way and over time [2017 onwards] timeframes squeezed and they had to find new ways of working, which is when dev-ops and its model forced them to adapt.
“No-one could architect their way out of the pandemic. You had to find a solution. I think we’re seeing how on the one hand there is this theoretical way of architecting and now this trial and error approach.”
Oliver of Tanium agreed, before adding how some industries were better prepared because they had properly managed their systems.
“Unfortunately, the pandemic also saw businesses preyed upon by cyber hackers and bad actors. [Tanium’s] role was to make sure that our customers knew where their assets were, be it in the Cloud or in someone’s home office set-up, and make sure for security issues, those items were catalogued, prioritized and managed. In serious cases, like a breach, the patching regime quickly found those, closed them down and allowed the business to get back on track.”
For Oliver, architecting the future is as much about continually reminding yourself of the basics, as well as innovative products and services.
The rest of the debate on technology architecture centered around how successive transformations have added complexity layered with legacy infrastructure and the challenge of staying on top of that, before considering automation and the main drivers of their strategies in that field.
This roundtable on technology architecture was sponsored by Tanium.