Digital leader insights: Adam Leach on change, infrastructure and security

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As CIO of Nominet, Adam Leach drives operations and innovation for one of the world’s leading domain registries: the organization that runs the .UK domain name and provides a key part of the UK’s Critical National Infrastructure. With 81 unique applications running across 190 virtual servers, Nominet supports over 100,000 daily users and over 25 million requests to its registry database every day, on top of a global DNS infrastructure that can receive over 300 billion DNS queries in a single month. Despite bearing such demanding workloads, Nominet’s DNS infrastructure has maintained 100% availability.

Now, with increasing demand and the ongoing pandemic, Nominet faces some of its biggest challenges yet. Having worked to support its workforce and maintain operations during lockdowns, it has now committed to a £20 million program to update its critical services and build a secure and resilient platform for future growth.

Having the provisions to thrive in lockdown

Where some organizations saw demand shrink during the pandemic, Nominet had a very different experience.

“Some businesses have done better in the pandemic than others,” says Leach, “and domain registration is one of those things that has remained quite healthy. We found traditionally that actually, in times of economic recession, anecdotally people start side hustles or lean into alternative careers, where suddenly a web presence and domain registration is more important.”

This made it crucial that operations continue to meet any surge in demand, but Nominet already had the infrastructure in place to support them.

“We were fortunate to have made quite a lot of investments around remote working before the pandemic” Leach tells us. “And I think we were then able to leverage the investments that had already been made and the infrastructure that was already there.”

That doesn’t mean that Leach and his teams didn’t have to adjust. ‘I think, for a lot of organizations, going into the pandemic entirely challenged our viewpoint and what we thought was needed, in terms of people being together physically to do the role that we do.

To enable the team to work effectively, Leach has had to find new ways to communicate and collaborate. “Information gets passed through by osmosis when people are in the same shared space together. This isn’t naturally the case when teams work together remotely.”

Continual infrastructure transformation and optimization

Now Leach’s focus is on Nominet’s ongoing digital transformation, or, as he puts it, “renewing the infrastructure that serves our customers.” He clarifies, “It’s not tied to the pandemic in a strong way. It’s just what we have to do continually to support our business.”

Nominet’s last infrastructure upgrade focused on moving its services from on-premise systems to a dedicated private cloud hosted in secure third-party data centers. Now it’s shifting over to a hybrid cloud platform in order to further reduce its dependency on its own physical hardware and take full advantage of the efficiencies, capacity and resilience of public cloud.

Now Leach’s focus is on Nominet’s ongoing digital transformation, or, as he puts it, “renewing the infrastructure that serves our customers.”

It’s an expensive move, but one that Leach feels is necessary if Nominet is to manage future growth. “We run critical national infrastructure for the UK,” Leach notes, “so we have to make the right level of investment to get the job done. We can’t cut corners around what we do, and we actively choose not to, because we feel that making sure we do the right thing with the right levels of security and resilience is paramount.”

Increasingly this means building and running less infrastructure privately or on-premise and establishing more partnerships outside. “You’ve got to recognize where you’ve got the capability in-house and where you need help from external suppliers or vendors,” Leach explains. “What you’re providing is a commodity and therefore can easily be outsourced.”

One aspect of being a part of the Critical National Infrastructure is understanding that Nominet must face different demands and have higher standards than other organizations, with many mandated in law. ”When you look at us, we’re really just an SME of a couple of hundred people,” Leach says, “but the systems and processes we put in place are more like what you’d see from larger institutions that have different risk exposure. We find we have to punch above our weight.”

A continually evolving security strategy

Inevitably, that means Leach needs to focus on security. “I cannot overstate how important cybersecurity is for our business,” he says. “It’s always been an important part of what we do, but it’s become even more vital as the external stakes have become higher. The threat landscape has certainly become more complicated – more complex –as there are a greater number of threats coming from a wider variety of places.”

Leach and his team look closely at what peers are doing, and what can be applied at Nominet.

“We work with government stakeholders,” he says, “where bodies are identifying best practice in security, and specifically for us around securing critical national infrastructure. We look at what investments and solutions our peers are putting in place and make sure that what we’ve got is in parity.”

In this, Leach works hand-in-hand with Nominet’s CISO. “Our CISO sees the challenges we’ve got, as well as what we need to do. I think what’s really great about having a CISO is that it’s not just about getting XYZ done, but being able to articulate, knowing the context of the business. And being able to work with me to work out how we get those things implemented and how we prioritize them is really helpful.”

"It’s about the team you build around you and making sure you’ve got the strength in your team"

This has resulted not just in a continually evolving security strategy, but in day-to-day activities that ensure Nominet’s security is right up there at the highest level. “We perform a range of activities,” Leach explains, “from making sure that the services we design are fit for purpose, to penetration testing, to red teaming what we do.” Leach and his team keep pushing to make sure that its services and infrastructure are as resilient and secure as possible and reflect the best of what Nominet is capable of. “Making sure that is as secure as it can be is really day-to-day work as well as strategic work. Making sure that you can mobilize to do that is really important.”

In fact, Nominet’s services and expertise have developed to the point that it can offer some of those services to the UK government and other bodies. “You get value from the investment just by doing it,” says Leach, “but then being able to then get other stakeholders to have value from what we create.”

Gaining strength from collaborative teamwork

Leach makes it clear that his success as a CIO isn’t just a solo effort, but the consequence of leadership and the backing of an experienced and effective team.

“It’s about the team you build around you and making sure you’ve got the strength in your team,” he says. “Making sure that the leaders that report to you are empowered and they’ve got the capability to deliver is an important element to get right, because we’re only as good as the people in our team.”

To hear more from other leading CIOs, CDOs and CTOs around the world, listen to Episode 1 of the Living Enterprise Podcast series.