An IT Gold Medal
- From CIO Digest, January 2010 Issue ( Download This Entire Issue in PDF)
At each of the past five Summer Olympiads, Australia has ranked among the top 10 nations in the number of medals awarded—and number 4 at two events—despite the fact that the country ranks 53rd in the world in terms of population. In addition, Australia began winning medals at the Winter Olympics in 1994, despite the country’s limited snow belt.
Part of the credit for this impressive winning streak goes to the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), which was established in 1989. The ASC is an agency of the Australian government, accountable to the Minister for Sport and to Parliament. Its charter is to promote and provide resources for sports at all levels—from the recreational to the elite, from professional leagues to after-school programs.
A diverse organization
The ASC’s broad mandate brings complexity to the IT team. “We have a lot of different activities that don’t fit a typical government agency model,” observes Anthony Collis, ICT Manager at ASC.
Despite a total of six business units with very diverse IT needs, Collis’s team is quite lean. “We have 17 staff across infrastructure, service desk, and communications who are responsible for looking after around 750 fulltime equivalents,” he relates. “But we actually have a lot of extra people on our books as well. Temporary users of our network include athletes, Ph.D. scholars, and other visiting academics.”
“Altogether, we have more than 100 line-of-business applications. I’m probably the only federal government ICT manager that has a timing system for a swimming pool among his responsibilities,” Collis quips. “It’s quite an interesting place to work.”
A natural move
Prior to joining ASC in 2006, Collis worked at Australian National University, where he completed his undergraduate studies. He began with the university’s business school and later moved to the John Curtin School of Medical Research, where he led the IT team.
“It was a fairly logical step for me to move over from the university system to the warm and fuzzy and rather specialized end of federal government work,” Collis reflects. The smaller organization has proven to be more nimble—at least compared to other federal agencies.
“For some of my colleagues that work in bigger departments, change takes a lot longer,” Collis says. “I’m not saying that we do change perfectly here, but we’ve seen quite a transition since I arrived; in fact, every component in the data center has been replaced.”
A transformation in IT
When he arrived, the organization was focused on bolstering several IT functions, most notably management of the ASC’s rapidly growing library of video assets. The team was also faced with the need to make internal services such as the athlete management system available to partner sports organizations.
“There was a realization that the methodologies and practices of the past were not going to work under the new paradigm,” Collis explains. “We couldn’t just have things running on local servers anymore. They needed to be on Web servers and publicly visible to the outside world. In general, there’s a lot more collaboration.
“We inherited a big environment with lots of servers, and the Commission couldn’t really afford to just replace all that metal, so we’ve done a big virtualization project,” Collis says. “We’re down to a handful of things that we can’t virtualize, and the environment is rock solid, so we’re now focusing more on reducing risk.”
Effective messaging management
A big part of risk management for Collis’s team revolves around email. “A lot of our coaches and key researchers won’t delete anything because they sometimes need an email from 1997 or 1998 for their work,” he explains. “But we were really concerned about the amount of data that was floating around on portable hard drives, because if there was a fire or theft, it would be gone.”
ASC addressed this risk by implementing Symantec Enterprise Vault for email archiving. “We’re at the tail end of implementation, and we have been ingesting all user PST files into the vault—more than 400 gigabytes,” Collis reports.
“We created a ‘Vault’ folder for users and placed their PST files there,” Collis adds. “Now, when they move new messages into that folder, it frees up their mailbox quota. And once we get Enterprise Vault implemented on our BlackBerry server, users will be able to see their vaults on mobile devices.”
A robust data protection solution
ASC now has about 80 terabytes of data, and that figure is increasing very quickly due to the organization’s increased use of video. “We’re heading in the direction of tighter storage policies and tiered storage because we can’t keep bolting in more spinning disk,” Collis states.
ASC used Veritas NetBackup across its enterprise for several years and retained the solution for its new Hitachi Data Systems storage infrastructure. “It has been a rock solid solution, keeping our backups within their windows, simplifying administration, and ensuring that the data is there to restore,” Collis reports.
Bolstering messaging security
Security is another priority for Collis’s team. “Our systems contain personal and performance information for internationally-known elite athletes,” Collis notes, “so security is at least as important for us as for other government agencies.”
Given the large number of publicly listed email addresses on ASC’s Microsoft Exchange system, messaging security is crucial. “To give you the numbers, 5.3 million messages are coming to the organization a month, and only 200,000 of them are legitimate,” Collis states.
For several years, Collis’s team has relied on Symantec Brightmail Gateway to filter this huge volume of incoming spam and recently moved the solution from an appliance to a VMware ESX server while upgrading to the latest version. “Another strategy to get rid of a piece of iron, and it’s rock solid,” explains Collis. “We utilized Symantec Consulting Services to put it in, and it went smoothly.”
With this upgrade, Collis’s team also began allowing users to inspect their spam quarantines on a self-service basis. “On rare occasions, we get a false positive strictly due to the nature of our business,” Collis says. “For example, archery equipment can sometimes be filtered as weapons for sale. So it helps some of our users to be able to scan the filtered content.”
Securing the endpoint
In 2008, Collis’s team used the deployment tool from Altiris Client Management Suite to upgrade from Symantec AntiVirus to Symantec Endpoint Protection. Since then, ASC has benefited from the new solution’s multiple layers of security. “We didn’t have a firewall in our environment before, and some users were very nervous about bringing one in because we have so many devices with cameras and sensors attached,” Collis explains.
“So we used a gradual approach in deploying the firewall, learning all the rules and changes we needed to make for our environment,” Collis continues. “The product has been really good, and it adds efficiencies because it’s a single agent to manage.”
Building out endpoint management
ASC has used Altiris Client Management Suite for imaging for several years, but the team was not using any of its other functionality when Collis arrived.
“I thought, ‘We’ve got these 1,100 seats that we need to manage. We need to get packaging and patch management working properly. We need to get a new help desk tool that’s tied in with ITIL processes. And we need to have asset management and proper inventory across the fleet’,” Collis notes. “We had all these components but weren’t using them. So we reinvigorated the product.”
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Collis’s team is now using the tool for software deployments, notifications, and inventory management, and has added the functionality of Altiris Service and Asset Management Suite. In addition, the team recently licensed its server environment with Altiris Server Management Suite and is preparing to deploy similar functionalities in the data center.
“Call me a bit strange, but software management is something that I actually like,” Collis quips. “I like the numbers to balance. We’ve worked through the whole Microsoft product family in the compliance sense. Now, when Microsoft does a software asset management inspection of our organization, we’re mature compared to most places—we just open Altiris and tell them the numbers.”
New tools for robust management
Another recent step for Collis’s team is implementation of Symantec Workflow. “Workflow is a new foray for us,” Collis says. “Getting a refined process for onboarding and offboarding end users will be one of our first projects. We can also leverage HR employee-manager relationship information for simple approval workflows. The other thing that we’re looking at is tying together our corporate asset management system and our asset information in Altiris.”
A particularly important project on Collis’s short-term roadmap is the upgrade to version 7 of the Altiris suites. “We’re particularly excited about the new Service Desk solution, and we’re also looking forward to its enhanced capabilities around change management.”
Looking to the future
As Collis looks to the future of IT at ASC, he realizes that data growth will be the biggest business driver, fueled primarily by increasing volumes of video. “If someone can come to me with a corporate YouTube that does high-def video in the cloud, that would be fantastic for me because I wouldn’t need to maintain a data center full of spinning disk,” Collis says.
“In general, we think that cloud computing is going to be important to our future,” Collis says. “The big issues we’ve had are security and making sure the company we work with still exists the next day. But we see cloud computing as being a potential solution for collaboration with our partners.”
Collis is also looking at increasing ASC’s presence in social media and is working on more robust policies around its use. “We’ve already got a lot of users on Skype. Athletes don’t carry ASC-funded phones, so they are going to use whatever is low cost, and we have to support it,” Collis explains.
“Similarly, we’re well into Facebook because our athletes are there,” Collis continues. “There’s no point in booking space in a newspaper to advertise a sports program for people who are under the age of 25. You do it through online media. And you can get much better targeting as well if you use the tools right.”
Supporting improved performance
Doing IT in a small organization puts one closer to those who benefit from the technology, and Collis can occasionally see direct connections between his work and the performance of Australia’s elite athletes.
“For the pacing of competitive cycling in the velodrome, for example, someone beforehand might have been riding at the pace,” Collis explains. “But now we’ve got a system that does laser pacing—something we developed in conjunction with the Australian National University. This has a direct impact on our athletes.”
“But I guess video has had the biggest impact,” Collis states. “We have every minute of footage that was publicly aired in Australia from the 2008, 2004, and 2000 Olympics, and a lot of footage aired in other places. Sometimes one of our teams will come up against someone they haven’t played against. If we have a copy of a match that was shown on EuroSport, for example, we’ll work it onto the video system, and they can then download it at the other end—no matter where they are.”
There’s no doubt that the ASC has contributed greatly to the success of athletics in Australia, and that Collis’s team has played a key role in that achievement. “It is a rewarding place to work,” Collis concludes. “Every day brings new challenges, but also new opportunities to help improve performance.”
Mark L.S. Mullins is a managing editor for CIO Digest and senior manager of Symantec’s Global Reference Program team.