Keep IT Simple, Stupid

As new software and IT services increase in complexity, the need for a unifying strategy is more important than ever.

Hong Kong utility CLP Power has chosen the end-to-end approach and, so far, has good reasons to be pleased with its choice. The principal subsidiary of US$3.2 billion-a-year CLP Holdings is in the advanced stages of a multi-year IT restructuring program aimed at reducing the number of applications in use, streamlining hardware procurement, and standardizing business groups on Microsoft and SAP products. The transition has been so successful that the electricity provider has been able to shave 18 percent off the total cost of ownership for its PCs and expects substantial savings through the use of an integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The company declines to give a figure, but in a recent brochure projects savings at HK$150 million (US$19.2 million).

CLP’s standardization drive first took shape in 1998 when the company was looking for a financials package to replace a mainframe-based system. Chief information officer Richard Brisbane-Cohen recalls how senior executives were concerned that a choice should not be based purely on the technical merits of competing packages. What they were really looking for was synergy. “When you start stringing 3,000 PCs together and you have more than 200 servers, you end up in a position where if you don’t get something more than just putting them together, you’re losing out,” says Brisbane-Cohen.

First, however, the company had to rationalize what it had — pruning what had grown into a hard-to-manage melange of incompatible platforms, overlapping programs and hardware of every specification. “We had every vendor known to man,” jokes Brisbane-Cohen. “When you walked into our computer room, every rack was different,” he says. This not only made it hard to achieve pricing power with individual suppliers, but complicated technical support and maintenance as IT staff needed many different skills.

Brisbane-Cohen’s response: eliminate clutter. Email clients that differed from one business group to the next — running the gamut from Eudora to Novell GroupWise — were replaced with Microsoft Outlook. Unbundled versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and multiple releases of Microsoft’s Office suite were consolidated; Office 2000 is now the standard. Wherever practical, Microsoft SQL Server replaced an eclectic assortment of databases. And the company’s ad hoc deployment of operating systems was reined in. Now just about everything — from desktops to servers to SAP applications — runs on Windows 2000.

Next came the hardware. “Two or three years ago, we were unable to easily ascertain the number of combined products on our data center floor,” admits Brisbane-Cohen. Now the company has an enterprise agreement with Compaq, recently merged with Hewlett-Packard, to provide servers, desktops, and some (though not all) laptops. CLP Power is even standardizing networking and switching equipment for the improved efficiency and flexibility — or “architectural value”, as Brisbane-Cohen calls it — that a unified network offers.

Cutting Out IT

The company has not only changed what it buys, but how it buys. By limiting the number of its vendors, CLP has found it easier to automate procurement and outsource the setup and installation of new machines, with the result that the IT department can often be left out of the process altogether. Any executive with the requisite budget and authority can make a self-service purchase online and have a machine delivered, with the correct software pre-installed and pre-configured to company specifications, without intervention from CLP’s own IT staff. For larger purchases where active company input is required, CLP is increasingly taking part in online auctions with other regional utilities to gain the best prices.

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