The pillars of mission-critical ICT

Technology leaders talk about balancing infrastructure, operations and people requirements in an increasingly competitive and digital environment.

This is part one of a special report on the CIO Leaders’ Luncheons in Wellington and Auckland on ‘the new scope of mission critical computing’ held in conjunction with Unisys. Read part two of the report here

Major forces – Internet of Things, big data and cloud – have converged to change the scope of what constitutes mission-critical systems. As businesses begin to settle into this new digital era, customer expectations are changing to become more mobile, complete with 24-hour access and a multitude of choice.

“The onus is on businesses to absorb innovation and overcome the challenges this brings,” says Steve Thompson, vice-president, ClearPath Engineering at Unisys.

Mission critical generally meant the data centre, says Thompson, but the definition has moved to encompass mobile devices and connected devices through to the ‘Internet of Things’, big data and the cloud.

“Whether that be financial, transportation or banking industries, the scope of mission critical has now expanded,” says Thompson, who spoke at the recent CIO Leaders’ Luncheons on ‘the new scope of mission-critical ICT’ held in Auckland and Wellington.

“You have to think about the entire landscape, not just one piece.”

Drawing on 30 years of experience at Unisys, working in Continuation Engineering supporting customers, Thompson discusses the major forces that have converged to change the scope of what constitutes mission-critical systems.

With Unisys systems providing the backbone of many businesses and financial, transportation, communications and social infrastructures around the world, Thompson accepts that everybody has different definitions of mission-critical systems based on their business.

Mission critical generally meant the data centre, but the definition has moved to encompass mobile devices and connected devices through to the ‘Internet of Things’, big data and the cloud.

Steve Thompson, Unisys

Deane Johns, CIO of the New Zealand Association of Credit Unions and Murray Mitchell, acting CIO at New Zealand Fire Service, draw on their cross sector experiences to demonstrate how organisations can ensure their infrastructure, operations and people meet new and constantly shifting requirements in this increasingly competitive and digital business environment.

Related: In pictures: CIO Leaders' Luncheon in Wellington on 'The new scope of mission critical ICT'

ICT on the frontline

Leadership is critical in the changing environment, says Murray Mitchell, who took over as acting CIO at NZ Fire Service early last year on secondment from the NZ Police, where he was chief technology officer.

“We can’t rely on what we’ve always done,” he says. “We need to make sure we are adapting and changing where we need to and can back up our decisions with solid evidence.”

His perspective has been honed from working in ICT for more than 25 years in key public and private industries at a senior level, and being involved in some of the major technology rollouts in the country, including modernising the NZ Air Traffic Control and equipping the Police with iPhones and iPads.

While the Police has always been regarded as the ‘big brother’ of the emergency services sector, and mission-critical challenges for the Fire Services were different in the past, Mitchell now tells his service colleagues: “The Fire Service is a twin.”

Firefighters, together with volunteers, number 13,500 and work across about 600 fire stations, making them bigger than the police force.

The public associates the Fire Services for putting down structure fires but there are a whole lot of other aspects to the organisation, he explains. As an example, he highlights how the firefighters have to work in extreme conditions, need real time and accurate information, and have an “absolute focus” on risk assessment and management.

Thus firefighters, who are trained in first aid, are increasing their medical training, working with St John.

At the same time, the service has a different staffing component.

There are 8300 volunteer firefighters across New Zealand, even in an urban area like Auckland.

We need to make sure we are adapting and changing where we need to and can back up our decisions with solid evidence.

Murray Mitchell, NZ Fire Service

In reaching out to different groups in the community, and providing them with different tools and opportunity to upskill, Mitchell tells volunteers: “You do not have to be a firefighter; if you just work on a computer in the office that is great.”

Or they can choose to volunteer in administration work. The younger staff can also help senior members in using the technology.

From an IT perspective, Mitchell is involved in a number of areas.

His wish list is emergency grade telecommunication networks, affordable satellite and a single end-user device that can handle the range of conditions firefighters work in.

For the Fire Service, high-quality, highly available communication networks are key. But the issue is coverage, says Mitchell, who believes New Zealand is challenging because of its geography.

“The focus on end-user devices is important,” he adds. “Incident controllers are carrying multiple radios and a smartphone.”

Fire fighters meanwhile, have to work in different environments – dusty, wet, hot and subjected to chemicals – while wearing thick gloves. “The gear they use is very heavy,” Mitchell says.

“We are totally reliant on the fire officer assessing the risk in front when they go to the scene.

“The firefighter has to know what is behind the door, so risk assessment and management of safety firefighters is absolutely number one in our focus.”

Mitchell also reveals firefighters are now using a new weapon to aid in gathering data.

Before they send a firefighter to a burning structure, they set the drone to surf the area and get images.

They also use it for situations in warehouses where there are labeled containers. The drone will take a photo of the label and beam it to the Hazardous Material (Hazmat) Command Vehicles.

The key is to ensure the drone will operate in all conditions, Mitchell says.

“In terms of the amount of money we spend, this is very cost effective,” he adds. “It is a very simple piece of technology and I really think this is going to be the shape of what mission critical is to the firefighters.”

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