Cloud Computing to the Max at Bechtel

Google, YouTube, Salesforce and Amazon provide Bechtel with benchmarks for a cutting-edge cloud computing infrastructure and applications modelled on SaaS.

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Once the new backbone was in place, Ramleth planned to certify Bechtel's most heavily used applications for the new environment. The ones that made the cut would be offered in a software-as-a-service fashion. Those that didn't would be left to die off as employees and partners using them finished their projects.

Only one problem: The external multitenant application model, which assumes centralized management of applications and data for all users, isn't an obvious fit for Bechtel or other large enterprises.

"The information that we have in our systems is not always ours. We might deal with a partner that has proprietary technology information that they don't want to leave our premises," says Ramleth. "If you have to go to a SaaS provider, you might not any longer know exactly where information is."

It's also tough for a big, often Byzantine business like Bechtel to alter its processes to align with an external SaaS offering. "The change would just be too big," says Ramleth. "Because of the highly distributed way we operate, it would be hard for us initially to integrate a third-party SaaS offering with our work processes and embedded applications." In addition, he says, there are industry- or enterprise-specific applications, like Bechtel's proprietary suite of procurement applications, that aren't available from a reliable SaaS vendor today.

The solution became for Bechtel IT to become its own SaaS provider to Bechtel's project teams. It's a position Ramleth may be predisposed to. In 1995, he started and ran an ISP called Genuity, funded by Bechtel, which provided high-speed Internet solutions for mid-to-large-sized organizations (Genuity was acquired by GTE in 1997). "Until we have [vendors] with applications and service models that work in our industry, we can learn from other guys [in the SaaS industry] about how to do it ourselves." (Ramleth is one of 12 CIOs inducted this month into the CIO Hall of Fame. Read more about him and other newly selected Hall of Famers)

By the end of next year, Ramleth expects to convert and certify 50 of Bechtel's most heavily used applications for operation in the new environment and offer them to users via Internet-based portal technology that includes Microsoft SharePoint.

Google-Like Apps

The IT organization studied software usage patterns and found that for any given application, 80 percent of users weren't doing heavy transactions. They were mainly trying to get some information (such as the status of a project) or perform a minimal operation (such as make a purchase). Ramleth's team realized this majority of users could benefit from having access to smaller pieces of big applications via the portal. "You can make a few screens available to a user who otherwise would have had a myriad of applications to go to," says Ramleth. "It wasn't rocket science, but we finally got that."

The goal is to create a Google-like experience for enterprise application users. Log in to the portal, pick a task and get it done in a few simple steps rather than logging in to an assortment of applications. "The portal is really where we'll get the benefits of the consumerization approach," says Ramleth. He expects that new versions of applications and pieces of applications delivered via the portal will lead to increased productivity and reduced training for users.

Some users will still need the full version of certain applications—such as computer-aided design software—and IT will continue to support them. "Those designers aren't necessarily nomadic users," says Ramleth. "We'll keep the larger-scale deployment models for those stationary heavy users."

So far, IT has converted about a dozen applications to the new environment and made parts of many more available via the portal. Microsoft Exchange, which used to run on more than 100 server environments around the world, is being consolidated via the PSN. InfoWorks, Bechtel's workflow and document management system—which used to be deployed in a distributed fashion project-by-project—has been rewritten to operate on a centralized, multitenant platform.

The development team has had to keep in mind the requirements of the new, highly virtualized back-end when rolling out new Internet-based versions of Bechtel applications. "You have to use technologies that are already certified for use in the virtual environment. You have to tune your databases differently. You have to write and architect applications that can work in a multiprocessor environment and [according to a] dynamic utilization model."

In some cases, IT is rewriting the old applications. In others, they're transitioning the legacy systems to the Internet using the virtual application server from Citrix.

Ramleth knows that some applications will be harder to convert to the new environment than others. While there are no "show-stoppers," he says that figuring out how to rework Bechtel's in-house procurement application is going to be particularly difficult. "We can't lean on the vendor community for help," he says. What's more, "it's as big an application as a full-size ERP implementation. But we believe that it's a big differentiator for us in the marketplace."

Ramleth's team is migrating employees and partners to the PSN portal as they are assigned to new projects. Ten thousand users globally are using services within the PSN today, and Ramleth has the complete deployment wrapping up by the end of 2009. It's not an easy transformation for any company. "If you look at Google or Amazon, they were able to build their infrastructure with no legacy," says Forrester's Staten. "Most organizations just find it too hard to operate in the flat Google environment because they have to completely rewrite all of their applications," the way Bechtel is doing. "But what they need to do now is look at their IT portfolio and start segmenting it into things that have to still be done the old way, and things that can be transformed."

"To be totally honest," Ramleth says about the application transformation, "this is where we still have a lot more work to do."

Dealing With Disruption

It's been a period of disruptive change for IT. "Without change, life would be boring," Ramleth says, but he realizes that many people in his organization hold a dissenting view. The first issue that surfaced was security. "When you start saying, 'We should think more like an external provider,' the first thing people say is, 'Let's be careful with what we're doing in security.'"

Ramleth made a deal with his security team—a hand-shake pact that before anyone spent any significant amount of money on PSN, there would be a clear view of how security might work. So while other teams researched the new infrastructure and applications environment, security did its own studies. By March 2007, when PSN work began in earnest, the security team had embraced a new way of thinking. Bechtel began working with Juniper Networks on a policy-based security model for the PSN. It's not perfect yet, but it's progressing. "It's a big change from having stuff inside or outside a firewall to this model we call any-to-any, secure-when-needed," says Ramleth.

"What has been harder is getting our IT people to accept these larger changes," he continues. "IT people are not the risk takers of the world." And for many at Bechtel, the PSN represents big professional and personal risk. Specialized skills they spent years perfecting are seemingly going by the wayside in a more commoditized, cloud-based IT world (although the new technology, as Ramleth sees it, brings with it additional opportunities as well).

Ramleth identifies three ways employees respond to change. "You have some people that just take you on blind faith and say, 'This makes sense, let's figure out how to do this,'" he says. Next, "there are some early followers who say, 'I would like to be there, but tell me that I am not going to get hurt.' They don't need too much convincing." In the third group "are the people who become part of the problem rather than part of the solution."

The key to winning over the staff is to look for individuals in the latter group whom you can convert from pointing out everything that's wrong with the new plan to helping you figure out what has to change to make it right. Notes Ramleth: "I often say to people, 'I don't know of anybody that embraced change that ever got hurt by it. Most people that embrace change benefit from it.'"

Experts say such a transformation can benefit the larger IT group, even if it's unsettling for individuals. "The enterprise can actually start to do things quite differently," says Rubin. "[It can] take all that time and money tied up in technical specialization and leverage that massive amount of new computing power to create business differentiation. It frees up money and it frees up focus."

Everything as a Service

If Bechtel is able to get its big applications up and running in the new environment by the end of next year, that will be a success. But it's just a baby step, says Ramleth. "If you say the ideal world is when everything is done as a service—computing, storage, software, X-as-a-service—and you look at where enterprises are today, we have a long road to go," says Ramleth.

He imagines a 10-step process. Steps one and two were to build the foundation—three new highly standardized and virtualized data centers. The next few will be to transition the old applications into the new environment. Then comes the hardest part: getting new business value from the PSN. Or as Ramleth puts it, "what it is that you can do now that you never did before."

One of those new things will be to offer partners and customers lifecycle information management. Today, there's no comprehensive capture of information on Bechtel's massive, years-long projects. But if the PSN becomes a part of day-to-day business, says Ramleth, "we can really start doing cross-company integration."

For example, Bechtel recently built a polyethylene plant in China. Once the PSN is fully deployed and integrated into Bechtel's business operations (by 2011 or 2012), Bechtel could help the plant owner implement its IT infrastructure and applications so that all of the information that was gathered while Bechtel was on the job is automatically integrated into the customer's IT systems. If there's a problem with, say, a valve, someone would be able to query the plant's SAP maintenance software and find out who the manufacturer is, what the specs are and how to fix the problem. Better yet, as more viable "X-as-a-service" offerings become available from third-party providers, Bechtel will be in a better position to plug and play. "Could we someday buy storage from Amazon, for example?" asks Ramleth. It's possible, he says. With the in-house transformation behind Bechtel, "making that leap will be easier."

"We see what we're doing with the PSN—creating our own internal proprietary cloud—as an enabler and precursor to [embracing] third-party SaaS offerings in the future," he says. "We'll have already broken down our old operating model and reduced internal complexity." Meanwhile, Ramleth no longer gets blank stares when he talks to his executive peers about incorporating the best practices of YouTube, Google, Amazon and Salesforce.com. Not only that, he reports, "I'm getting a heck of a lot more interest from CIOs asking how they can do this. Maybe they're starting to come into some of the same issues we were, or maybe I'm just articulating it better."

Ramleth is convinced that IT leaders who wait to pursue similar strategies will be at a disadvantage down the road, as they continue to build more complexity and resource demands into their current environments instead of systematically trying to reduce that complexity and increase efficiency. "You have to start opening up a little to this way of thinking so you can start to transition now, rather than making it an expensive forklift operation down the road."

If the day comes when all computing moves to the cloud, at least Bechtel, Ramleth insists, won't have to start from scratch.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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