- Industry: Consulting
- Employees: 1,600
- Operations: Provides academic and professional expertise to support environmental and infrastructure projects, particularly in developing countries
- Financials: 2005 revenue was $170 million (up 29 percent year on year) while profit was $10.2 million (up 45 percent year on year)
Microsoft offers a stronger brew for Coffey International
Linux may have seemed like the cheaper option, but a switch to Windows has allowed Coffey International consultants to start collaborating in ways that were impossible under Linux. David Braue reports.
Building an infrastructure that's reliable and effective takes time. Few companies know this better than Coffey International, a virtual brains trust that co-ordinates the expertise of consultants in construction, engineering and other disciplines to support physical and social development projects the world over.
It's not an easy mission, and it regularly takes Coffey experts far beyond the walls of the company's 47 Australian offices. Spread across ten business units, those experts consult on projects ranging from post-tsunami redevelopment in Aceh to capital planning projects to improve third-world healthcare.
Demand for the company's services is so high that, fuelled by acquisition and natural growth, it has rapidly expanded from 500 to its current level of 1,600 people over the past three years. Supporting their needs with appropriate IT is the job of Clive Parsons, who joined the company as CIO a year ago with the mandate to revisit the company's ailing architecture and to plan a more flexible technological path.
The problems with Coffey's previous infrastructure, introduced in 1999 and built around Mandrake Linux, were immediately evident, says Parsons. -Coffey had become aware that they weren't delivering what they needed to deliver, and were growing faster than their infrastructure could cope," he explains.
-The way they set up their Linux-based infrastructure had promoted the silo mentality; information wasn't stored in any sort of intuitive manner, and it wasn't easy to access information across the various geographical areas. If you weren't in the Brisbane office, for example, you couldn't access that information. There was just nothing from the information point of view that was encouraging collaboration."
As well as battling informational disorganisation, the company was also suffering as its long-term employees struggled to keep the environment afloat, much less to continue scaling it up to support the increased volumes that growing employee numbers would have required. That made Linux and open-source software, which when implemented was viewed as a low-cost platform that would slash Coffey's IT costs, more of a hindrance than a help -- and turned it into the prime target for replacement under Parsons' watch.
-They initially thought Linux was going to be a cheaper platform," he says, -but as soon as they started to expand they became aware that the hidden costs of Linux were all over the place -- not only in real dollar terms, but because they weren't using the environment intelligently because of the [limited] skill sets."
Moving away from Linux
Parsons, who came from a mainframe background and professes to have been -ignorant of Microsoft" when he came into the job, recognised the need for the new infrastructure to meet key goals including keeping IT staff numbers low; information mobility to support further workforce expansion; and access to new technologies as they became available.
A -key thing", Parsons adds, was to provide a single supplier environment where finger-pointing could be bypassed for more important and productive problem-solving. Discussions with numerous vendors led him to Microsoft, where he was struck by the way the SharePoint Portal Server 2003 collaboration server was driving development of an application ecosystem that was well-matched to Coffey's own distributed, collaborative environment.
-They're gearing everything towards this collaboration platform, and the way these applications are moving towards total integration is extremely attractive to me," says Parsons. -Knowledge needs to be transferred seamlessly and transparently between the organisations."
The next months were filled with a major learning and implementation exercise as Coffey gradually peeled back its Linux infrastructure and implemented a range of Microsoft server applications that Parsons felt would better suit its corporate direction.
After four months, Microsoft Active Directory and Exchange Server 2003 had replaced now-discontinued Linux servers to provide a consistently managed, centralised messaging infrastructure across 20 Coffey offices. -Previously, all the e-mails were effectively stored on the desktops and there was no central location of the data," Parsons explains. -That's a nightmare both because of litigation, and because of duplication across the company and all the problems that duplication brings."
Another key area of focus has been portals, with three types of SharePoint portals currently being implemented to support different user needs. This includes a general information portal for news briefs and general company information; community of practice portals focused on core Coffey consulting areas like hydrogeology, geophysics, HR and others; and project portals that unite members of a project team from anywhere around the world.
This approach not only serves to unite Coffey experts, but makes it easy for project teams to involve individual experts that are often called upon to provide input on complex infrastructure projects.
Such integrated, comprehensive capabilities would have been impossible for the company to implement under Linux, which Parsons says staff were struggling to integrate and keep running. -Some of the guys feel like it's an emancipation from previous issues they had with IT in general," he explains.
-If we were going to stay in the Linux/Unix area, we would have needed systems integration staff to continually monitor how to keep it working. I don't want our staff looking backwards; I want them looking forward, and Microsoft applications are allowing that."
A wealth of benefits
Strong user support for the new environment has validated Parsons' initial feeling. Users are more comfortable with the environment, while accessibility of information means executives -are feeling much more confident" about continuing to expand Coffey's business in new ways.
If we were going to stay in the Linux/Unix area, we would have needed systems integration staff to continually monitor how to keep it working. I don't want our staff looking backwards...
Clive Parsons, Coffey International CIO
Parsons is now staring down implementation of ERP software Epicor for Service Enterprises, which will build on the framework now in place to provide an integrated business system. -We've specifically chosen a company that partners with Microsoft and integrates with SharePoint to allow some of our more high-end functionality to be deployed," says Parsons. -Before, in the Linux environment, that simply would not have been possible."
Costs are down, too: just 11 IT staff now support 1,600 Windows employees and a data centre that has been consolidated down to 24 Dell PowerEdge 1855 blade servers. Consolidated licensing agreements have reduced the cost and complexity of licence management, to the point that Parsons estimates the new environment has required just 30 percent of the investment that would have been necessary had the company continued with Linux.
Training has been less onerous than in the previous environment, since all users are already used to doing things the Windows way. -Because it's a Microsoft front end, there's very little training required for them to understand how to use it," says Parsons, adding that finding information has also become faster.
The biggest value from the migration, however, has been the soft benefits that -- even as the project continues to grow in breadth and capability -- continue to change the way the company operates.
-We're starting to see cross-group collaborations on a scale that we've never seen before, with communities of practice across the entire group rather than one office," Parsons explains. -Engineers are talking at a groupwide level about methods of communication that would never have happened in the past, and project managers are interested across the group in projects they would otherwise never have been aware of. It's great to see the organisation embracing what's going on."
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