Australian Defence CIO on filling Farr's shoes

The new Australian Department of Defence CIO Dr Peter Lawrence speaks to ZDNet about coming into one of the biggest CIO roles in the Australian government.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

New Australian Department of Defence CIO Dr Peter Lawrence has big shoes to fill in taking over the role from Greg Farr after five years, but he told ZDNet that although it is his first public sector role, he sees it as having a lot of similarities to his corporate sector background.

Dr Peter Lawrence. (Credit: Department of Defence)

In his first of a number of media interviews since taking over the role at the end of November last year, Lawrence told ZDNet that he has spent the last few months "listening, reading, and asking a lot of questions" within Defence to get his head around the big task that lies ahead. In the handing over, Lawrence said that Farr told him to understand the "business of Defence".

"His key advice was really just about getting to know the business of Defence, and immersing yourself in what Defence is about," he said. "A lot of what I've been doing since I joined is getting out there and talking to people about the business of Defence."

"If you actually run the real difference around Defence, it is about protecting Australia and its interests, and that sort of brings you to some quite pointed things we need to be able to do in terms of delivering capability."

Prior to joining Defence, Lawrence had held various roles in the private sector, including the group manager of IT energy markets at Origin Energy, the CIO at ANZ in New Zealand, and also as IT country leader at Shell Australia. He said that because of the large number of finance, procurement, and people systems within Defence, the CIO role wasn't too different to roles in the private sector. The one big difference, he said, was that Defence employs 100,000 people across the public service, Defence Force, and the reserves across the globe.

"It's certainly bigger than the banks," he said.

The CIO in Defence also had a big say in the running of the department, he said.

"The CIO sits at the Defence committee, which is the management group around Defence. I am an integral part of that," he said. "Therefore, we're part of the group that drives Defence, we get equal say, we're part of the reform agenda. We get input into projects."

With taxpayers footing the bill, there was a higher degree of governance in getting projects approved, Lawrence said.

"That's probably one of the critical challenges for me at the moment--meeting the demands of the Defence Force and yet obviously, being able to keep the cost base under control," he said.

To that end, Lawrence said that the big projects of 2013, including the terrestrial communications network roll-out, the next generation desktop rollout, and the replacement of the Peoplesoft system would all go to reduce costs.

"A lot of the large reform programs we're running will deliver us cost savings. They'll modernise the things we've got and make them more current, and they'll actually move us to a lower cost base at the same time," he said.

Lawrence said Defence was in the final stages of negotiating with Telstra over the billion-dollar terrestrial network, and he said that the aim was to get the contract signed in the first quarter of 2013, then commence work on it right away.

"We're just in the process of prioritising where we start, and that will start to proceed this year. We're just getting the implementation plan in place, and then it will be full steam ahead. It'll take us about two and a half years to implement," he said.

When completed, the high-capacity terrestrial communications network will integrate with the US Department of Defence's own network. The contract will also include mobile phones, unified communications, and management of the network.

Shortly before Lawrence started at Defence, the department signed a AU$63 million, four-year contract with Oracle to replace the legacy HR platforms across the department into one integrated platform. Lawrence said that the project was already well underway.

"We've modernised the platform, and we've moved the public servants onto the platform. We've now got to do the [Australian Defence Force]," he said.

"That's a key project that we need to deliver to enable the people management side of Defence to reduce the number of systems we're using"

Lawrence said that the approach was slightly different for the Next Generation Desktop project. After a successful pilot of the program last year, which will replace multiple desktops with a single Windows 7 desktop that has access to the Defence Restricted Network and the Defence Secret Network, the project gained second pass approval late last year with partner Thales.

Lawrence said that this rollout would first be targeted to staff with a higher security level.

"We'll probably focus on some of our higher priority domains. We have different domains that handle different levels of information. We'll go for the higher priority people," he said.

"It gives us higher levels of control from upgrading from a Windows XP platform [to Windows 7]. We're a huge step forward in the modernisation, and we're just going to take advantage of those improved management and controls that come with the new platform to prioritise the more secure information first."

Farr indicated last year that the project, which will ultimately replace 100,000 devices, is expected to save the government AU$277 million over six years.

Following the completion of the massive three-year datacentre migration from close to 200 facilities to a single datacentre based in Sydney, Lawrence said that the next stage will be finalising the major centralised processing tender, which came back to the department two weeks ago.

He said that the tender would be evaluated, and Defence would then move to the next stage of going to a private cloud. Lawrence said that this was Defence's first step into the cloud.

"Our first step in that journey is to create a private virtualised cloud, and that will be driven out of our centralised processing and data centre strategy. We're looking through those efficiencies around standardisation and virtualisation, which they obviously give you as part of what you get from that."

Like any modern CIO, Lawrence said that there is a push within the Defence department to allow staff to bring their own devices. While he said that remote working through Citrix and a token was possible, it would be a while before staff were going to be able to bring their devices onto any of the Defence networks.

"Can anyone walk in with any old Android device or tablet at the moment and just connect it to the network? Absolutely not, [but] I think that whole trend is something we need to look at--it's something we are looking at. It's certainly something we're thinking about, but it is not something necessarily available now."

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